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January 28, 2021

Is artificial intelligence the ultimate tool for fact checking, in the post-truth era ?

How about intellectual rigor, in the era of social networks and viral news? Can artificial intelligence help us face the massive challenge of fact checking?

Caught red-handed

On 2019 October 23, Mark Zuckerberg was in the spotlight again, not for his best interest… again.

The Facebook leader was frontally confronted by Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, on a simple question : will Facebook allow political parties and candidates to pay for exposure, even when their content contains unverified, unsourced, and/or intentionally false facts.

It’s not only a political problem. All areas are impacted : corporate communication, articles dealing with innovations, breakthrough scientific announcements, medical news, and so on.

Science, technology, and the business world are equally concerned with the fact checking issue, and the urgency of keeping intellectual rigor

Zuckerberg defends his position saying that for him, everyone must be free to express themself. In his own words, democracy is also about being exposed to all kinds of informations, then making one’s own criticism of it :

“I just think that in a democracy people should be able to see for themselves what politicians are saying, and I think that people should make up their own minds about which candidates are credible and which candidates have the kind of character that they want to see in their elected officials”

This is a double-edged argument, in my opinion. Just like telling a three-year-old that they can put their hand on the baking sheet, to see “for themself” that it burns.

Brain workout

Because this is what we are : eternal teenagers. We naturally lean towards easiness. We don’t (or barely) make the mental effort to put a critical distance between us and what we read.

Plus, we simply can’t verify all the news we are exposed to, and that we share. It’s information overload every minute, and this is not our job to go check the sources.

Also, we want to hear what suits us. Facebook’s algorithm goes in that direction, exposing us to content that validates what we already think.

It takes a true intellectual flexibility to confront ourselves to opposite points of view, that will challenge us.

The more you hold tight to your position, the more you will reject anything that goes against it. It’s a gut reaction, it threatens us.

Humans are not 100% rational : our emotions come into play, especially when dealing with hot topics. Twitter’s polemicists of all kinds are masters in the art of seeking purely emotional reactions of their audience. It is devastating, in the time of immediate reactivity, when no one seems to know how to take a step back anymore.

Intellectual rigor is a discipline that is acquired and learned. Sourcing the facts, distancing oneself, considering a problematic from different angles, if possible without tinted glasses: nobody was born with these faculties. Theoretically, those skills are learned at school. But quite frankly, in recent decades, there seem to be more and more deficiencies in the teaching of critical methods. I am not convinced that the younger generations will be as equipped as we were, on that matter.

And even if we learned the theory, it doesn’t vaccinate us from bad faith, which is not proportional to the level of education. It’s not a guarantee against stupidity either, when you think of the challenges spread through social media, to pour a ice bucket on your head or to swell your lips by sucking in a glass.

We, homo sapiens, are still teenagers, even more when we take social networks for an official source of information, while it was designed to be only entertainment.

For all these reasons, Mark Zuckerberg’s argument is a little weak, and the challenge of fact checking is immense.

Is fact checking humanly impossible now ?

Of course, Zuckerberg has to be held accountable for his company’s decisions. Every CEO has to answer for what their group does, especially when it comes to earning money from biased political campaigns.

However, Zuckerberg does not bear all the responsibility alone. We can push the reflection further.

Is it really up to Facebook to do the fact checking? Isn’t it entirely the responsibility of content creators?

The question isn’t, should Facebook moderate its content, but is it even possible?

The answer right now is no.

Even though Zuckerberg would set up his Independent Fact Checking Network project — (an independent board of fact-checkers), there is no indication that this office will be effective

In any case, the moderators and fact checkers employees should be thousands, and they should be able to check everything that is published, everywhere, in all languages. It is humanly impossible.

Moderating content on a global scale has become mathematically unmanageable.

Social networks have given everyone the possibility to express their opinion, founded or not, as dangerous, violent and hateful as it can be, at mass levels and virality that we are unable to control anymore. This is our Pandora box.

AI to the rescue !

If humanly we can’t handle the challenge of global fact-checking, can artificial intelligence do it? Will it be the ultimate tool for intellectual rigor ?

For sure. The systems are already able to check very quickly the figures and data cited. Tomorrow, they will be able to determine what was the original context of the facts, if they were taken out of it, twisted, exaggerated or minimized.

In the coming years, we won’t do without AI, in the field of information and the press.

Artificial intelligence will be an indispensable tool for researchers, organizations, journalists and anyone in a position to inform and influence public opinion.

The fact checking will gradually be automate, always in cooperation with human intelligence : the critical thinking of editors, publishers and broadcasters will be essential, and more than ever, the credibility of their work will depend on it.

From now on, the reputation of a brand, a company, a research center or a newspaper will directly depend on its processes of intellectual rigor, in our post-truth era.

Let’s be very pragmatic, the challenge of tomorrow is not to check everything that is published, but to distinguish reliable channels of information (major newspapers, independent journalists, official sources) and to stick to them only.

In the same way that we have today very powerful deepfake technologies (videos editing and synthetic voices that can make anyone say anything, making it increasingly difficult to tell hoaxes from the truth), advances in artificial intelligence can help debunk manipulated information.

Every historical period has its problems, and each problem has some technological solutions.

In the era of viral disinformation (including deepfakes), the information and journalism field must evolve with the very technological tools that threatens it.

It’s all about positioning

Recently, Twitter co-founder and CEO Jack Dorsey has announced that the platform will not sponsor political ads starting November 22, in a attempt to avoid the backfire of Cambridge Analytica and Brexit scandals, above all with the new threat of deepfake.

Google, for its part, has recently announced that it will highlight, in the search results, original and sourced articles, resulting from work that required time and effort … in short, intellectual rigor.

Another proof that there are always other ways.

Jean-Christophe Bonis

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