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Making informed decisions in a world of disinformation

17 September 2021
Fake news

Angus Wilson, Investment Manager

Before the advent of the internet search engine, which was developed slowly through the 1990’s, we were left to decipher untruths ourselves. When an outlandish claim was made at the dinner table, one aggrieved family member would scramble for the nearest encyclopaedia to disprove it. By the time the entry had been found, conversation had moved on and dessert was being served.  

As we look back through the recent history books, it’s hard to believe that in 1994, the self-ascribed ‘lightning fast web search’, WebCrawler, couldn’t be used in the daytime due to its popularity. In the early days, as contributors like Yahoo! and AskJeeves built more traction, the range of content was extremely limited. In their infancy, these search directories were a useful supplementary tool, but after accounting for the time and money spent dialling up to the internet, an encyclopaedia still may have been the best bet.

Fast forward to 2010 where Google Instant is launched. Users are now provided real time search results as they type their query. The range of information available is vast and, importantly, almost all of it is taken as gospel truth. The dinner time dispute is resolved in an instant.

Over the last decade, we have been re-wired to “ok Google”, “hey Siri” or “Alexa”, rather than seeking the knowledge or opinion of the person standing right next to us. There is a widely debated issue here around de-socialisation at the hands of tech but that’s for another article…

The focus in this piece is the relatively recent and harmful spread of disinformation (A.K.A fake news) on the internet. Disinformation is very similar to misinformation despite one key difference: intent. An individual can expect to spread misinformation by mistake, humans are imperfect beings after all. With disinformation, however, they intend to pass on erroneous information to cause damage to another party.

Notable disinformation campaigns on Facebook have included Russian interference in the 2016 US elections. This contributed to a Trump victory and anti-Rohingya Muslim hate speech in 2018, resulting in a genocide claiming the lives of over 24,000 people at the hands of Burmese soldiers.

Facebook has repeatedly been in the firing line over the increase of disinformation on its platform. Zuckerberg has long fallen back on the company’s stock response that freedom of speech should be upheld within the confines of its rules against hate speech and harmful content. In one interview, he said “everyone gets things wrong, and if we were taking down people’s accounts when they got a few things wrong, then that would be a hard world for giving people a voice and saying that you care about that”[1]. Clearly there are many blurred lines and the powerful social media companies must balance their ethical and moral obligations with their search for profit. 

Arguably the deeper problem is the way in which the platforms feed us information. Articles and adverts (factually accurate or otherwise) are prioritised in the algorithm based on the amount of user engagement. This has driven an inclination to produce the most shocking content (clickbait) for the sole purpose of generating user traffic.  Sensationalistic and polarising views are endlessly published regardless of accuracy.

In an age of seemingly endless information, it is for the individual to navigate that, which should be believed. Within financial markets, we are exposed to a continually evolving stream of news. Analysts must make decisions based on this information but must first assess its integrity. Cynical though it may seem, the incentive systems have been warped. ‘Likes’ have become a currency that individuals and corporations crave, often achieved through misinformation. 

The way that we digest news has changed. In one study, it was found that in 2012-2013, 27 percent of Americans relied upon social media sites for their news, compared to 51 percent in 2017[2]. Of this social media ‘news’, only a portion originates from reputable sources with much of it being the opinion of users acting through their own personal news outlet.  

Lawmakers will no doubt continue to engage with the tech companies, encouraging continued investment in tools that identify fake news and lobbying to adjust the incentive system for those who profit from disinformation. As consumers, we should be increasingly sceptical of what we read and watch. We should use a range of news sources to build a balanced view. With so much misinformation proliferating our Google or Facebook searches, resolving the aforementioned dinner time debate seems to have become a little more complex.


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