Wednesday, November 25, 2020

Artificial-intelligence tool can smell a conspiracy, but it can be gamed, which shows the lasting value of good journalism

As social media become more popular and more siloed, misinformation (all false info) and disinformation (false info spread with the intent to mislead) become an increasing threat. A new artificial-intelligence tool shows promise in weeding out conspiracy theories, but its developer notes that it can be gamed. The bottom line? There's still no substitute for a reporter with a good nose.

A culture analytics group at the University of California has developed an A.I. tool that determines when social-media conversations have the hallmarks of conspiracy theories. "We have applied these methods successfully to the study of Pizzagate, the COVID-19 pandemic and anti-vaccination movements. We’re currently using these methods to study QAnon," Timothy Tangherlini, who co-leads the group, writes for The Conversation. He acknowledges that, if the tool were to be widely used, conspiracy theorists familiar with it might deliberately design their posts to stay off its radar.

However, social-media platforms would have to be willing to employ such a tool in the first place, and it's not clear that they would. Such platforms have long struggled with how much to tamp down on misinformation, but at Facebook, for example, "the company’s aspirations of improving the world are often at odds with its desire for dominance," Kevin Roose, Mike Isaac and Sheera Frenkel report for The New York Times.

Facebook changed the site's news-feed algorithm just after the election to boost the visibility of more trustworthy news outlets. Employees hoped that burying more extreme partisan sites such as Breitbart or Occupy Democrats for a few days would slow the spread of false and misleading claims that the election had been rigged.

Some employees lobbied for the news algorithm to always be configured that way, but others feared that playing down partisan sources "could hurt Facebook’s growth, or provoke a political backlash that leads to painful regulation," the Times reports.

In any case, Facebook's efforts were no match for the disinformation pushed by the Trump campaign and its surrogates: President Trump's "false claims of voter fraud have been picked up by many state and local Republican officials across the country, and polls now show that more than two-thirds of GOP voters believe the 2020 election was neither free nor fair," Matt Vasilogambros reports for Stateline.

Regardless of how well the A.I. tool works out, journalists still have their work cut out for them.

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