The impressive title, “Facts vs. Fake News: Who Decides What is True?”, suggested a session that perhaps with hindsight was difficult to live up to. It was one of those topics that sounded self-evident, yet when people started discussing it turned out to be rather one-dimensional, or at least limited to the perspective of the panellists.

Let’s face it, the issue with fake news is that it’s only a problem for the minority of people who are bothered about it. All the people in the room were bothered about it, but the world outside (as can be seen from Trump’s USA and the UK that voted for Brexit) is not. So the issue is not “who decides what is true”, since the majority of the population have voted with their feet and decided what the truth is. So this discussion was never going to address the main issues. Panels of experts are not what the populace is looking for to combat fake news. They are quite happy with the news they get, even if it is (partly or wholly) fake. The seminar risked at times revealing itself as a coterie of left-wing liberals who could not understand how anyone could be taken in by fake news. In fact, one questioner asked just that question, if there was any evidence that fake news had really affected, say, the Clinton – Trump election. Nobody in their right mind, you might think, could be taken in by such tricks.

So it was somewhat irrelevant that two of the four panellists represented what I will describe as the voice of authority: they offered expert opinions, even if nobody was going to listen to them. However worthy they may be, they reminded me of the online encyclopedia initiative called Scholarpedia (it’s still running). It was intended to serve the same function as Wikipedia, but to be compiled by authorities in their field. It never took off, and it has, I would guess, less than 1% of the users of Wikipedia.

The third panellist, Heather Staines of hypothes.is, was again very well-meaning, but sounded to me like someone in the wrong session. Hypothes.is is a service to provide annotations. Those annotations could potentially be fake news, but clearly hypothes.is had not considered such a possibility, and did not have any tools in preparation for such an eventuality.

That left the fourth speaker to address the topic in a balanced way. She, Jennifer Pybus, is based at Kings College London, and seemed to carry the responsibility of the entire university on her shoulders. However, although she gave an interesting and informed talk, she did not have any recipe when asked at the end by the chair what to do. The most chilling answer to “who decides what is true” was Heather Staines, who said, as a historian, that history tells you that the victors decide what is true. It’s not truth, it’s power. That final note revealed perhaps there is a whole discussion that did not take place at this event. Ms Pybus often gave the impression from her slides that more than one conclusion could be drawn. For example, she talked about three challenges facing us all, two of them uncontentious, but the third worth thinking about:

  1. Loss of personal data
  2. Need for more accountability around political advertising
  3. Concentration of ownership in algorithmic practices leading to spread of misinformation

In my view, having access to understand the algorithm is a very necessary step in evaluating machine-based solutions, but the concentration of ownership of algorithms is not in itself a problem. Nor is the “algorithmic practices” themselves an issue, unless treated as a black box and never examined for bias. In conclusion, this was a discussion that, given the panel, would never reach a very pragmatic solution. Nonetheless, the presentations and the evening were fascinatin; if only they could have addressed the issue in a more informed way.