October 19, 2017

A study released today about online misinformation posits a few existential questions.

Will technology improve our lives, or worsen them? Is human nature fundamentally the problem? Will chaos dominate the future internet?

While it sounds like a philosophical treatise, it’s actually the latest look at the future of viral misinformation online and the efforts to combat it. Conducted by researchers at the Pew Research Center and Elon University’s Imagining the Internet Center, the study surveyed more than 1,100 internet and technology experts. Each was asked whether they think new methods will defeat fake news over the next 10 years or if the quality of online information will deteriorate.

Turns out the jury’s still out on that one.

“There is nothing resembling consensus about whether this problem can be successfully addressed in the coming decade,” said Lee Rainie, the study’s co-author and Pew’s director of internet and technology research, in an emailed press release. “(The experts) disagree about which side comes out on top in the escalating arms race: those who exploit human vulnerabilities with internet-speed manipulation tactics or those who create accurate information and reliable delivery systems for it.”

Of the sample, which was collected over the summer, 51 percent said the information environment will not improve over the next decade, while 49 percent said they expect things to get better. The Pew report focuses on participants’ explanations for their answers, which it boils down into two ideologically distinct camps: people who believe humans use technology nefariously and people who think it can be used for good.

According to the study, the 51 percent of experts who said things will not improve mostly cited two reasons: fake news preys on people’s worst instincts and their brains don’t have the capacity to deal with technological change. They predicted a future in which false information crowds out the reliable sources, echo chambers are reinforced, gatekeepers use technology to take advantage of people and citizens give up on being informed. 

“The quality of information will not improve in the coming years, because technology can’t improve human nature all that much,” Christian H. Huitema, former president of the Internet Architecture Board, said in the study.

On the other side, the 49 percent of experts who said things will get better cited two different reasons: technology can help fix problems with misinformation and it’s human nature to work together. They envisioned a future where improved methods help defeat large swaths of misinformation online, well-meaning actors will work together and media literacy will improve.

“When the television became popular, people also believed everything on TV was true,” said Irene Wu, an adjunct professor of communications, culture and technology at Georgetown University, in the study. “It’s how people choose to react and access to information and news that’s important, not the mechanisms that distribute them.”

The report is the eighth in Pew and Elon’s “Future of the Internet” series and was created by a team of eight researchers, designers and producers. It details each of the 1,116 responses over 91 pages, and its thematic analysis is based on 500 pages of written responses from the experts — 74 percent of which are from North America (Alexios Mantzarlis, director of the International Fact-Checking Network at Poynter, is quoted in the report). More than half the respondents chose to remain anonymous.

Janna Anderson, the study’s co-author and director of the Imagining the Internet Center, said in the release that the responses from experts centered on a few improvements the media need to make in order to effectively counter misinformation.

“They said the information environment can’t be improved without more well-staffed, financially stable, independent news organizations whose signals are able to rise above the noise of misinformation to create a base of ‘common knowledge’ for the public,” she said. “They also urged far more literacy efforts to help people differentiate fact from falsehood.”

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Daniel Funke is a staff writer covering online misinformation for PolitiFact. He previously reported for Poynter as a fact-checking reporter and a Google News Lab…
Daniel Funke

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