Over the past half dozen years or so, people everywhere have expressed a growing concern about disinformation. Conspiracy theories abound, people start to doubt things that have been settled for centuries now, and rumour has it that if you leave YouTube on autoplay for a night, you’ll wake up as a Nazi.
And then, with wide-eyed technological ambition, people say “I have a solution!” We’ll fact check everything, we’ll educate people!” And worse: A large (and growing) number of grants for open source work now ask for such solutions and take “combating misinformation” as the main goal that needs to be achieved.
These requests for proposals assume that sane and competent persons see a meme about the moon landing being faked and then immediately say “yeah, that seems reasonable!”
But the actual problem lies not in the lack of available or even fact-checked information. All the facts we ever need are out there, with links, backlinks, citations, and so on. Missing facts or people that tell us what is true and what isn’t is not the problem.
The actual problem we face is twofold
First: An increasingly large number of people put their trust into people and institutions that at best misdirect and at worst actively lie to them. It is no use to put “corrected” or “fact-checked” information next to that content, because the harm is already done: People have decided to take the word of a liar over any other available source.
Second: It is increasingly hard to curate ones own internet experience. By that I mean that our internet portals are on a quest to keep everyones attention. And in that quest, these portals will try to serve up for ever more gripping and “engaging” content.
(And to be honest, once you start being interested in them, conspiracy theories of all kinds can be quite gripping and engaging!)
There are a lot of studies and articles that will explain the psychological patterns, and how the most successful theories draft in their victims by making them active participants. There is for example The Psychology of Conspiracy Theories. Another more accessible text has been published by the New York Times. Or look at the American Psychological Association.
The common thread through all these studies is that the underlying cause is not lack of information or insufficient fact checking. Instead, conspiracy theories and misinformation satisfy a psychological need for control and understanding the world.
On the other hand, we have social networks trying their very best to build in “sticky” behaviour into their products. This means designing services in such a way that people log on more and more. They want us to use these portals as exclusively as possible.
And once hooked, the recommendation and feed algorithms will reel them in. They do their best to ensure no one will leave their chosen “interest bubble”. To do this, they push more and more of the same onto our screens, until there is nothing else left.
What to do instead
What chance can a fact-checking service have here? I daresay next to none. And that is why Darcy will not be an arbiter of what is true and what isn’t.
But Darcy will also not tell you what to see and whom to follow. It will also not be an environment that incentivises galvanising content by messing with your feed. Your social network is built of the people YOU choose to follow and interact with. Your timeline and content feed will contain the things you chose, in the order in which they were published.
We honestly believe that this is a much better way to fight conspiracy theories. And that includes those infamous “fake news”.