Americans Still Can’t Tell The Difference Between Online Bots And Humans
Is that social media account you’ve just been interacting with a bot or a human? It’s a valid question and one that most Americans agree is hard to answer. A recent study from the Pew Research Center found that just 47% of Americans were confident they could identify a social media bot from a real account.
This comes on the back of Stanford Research study which found that most American Students had trouble identifying fake news stories from real ones. The findings of these two studies are perhaps not surprising given the rise of fake news in the run-up to the 2016 presidential election.
Fake news sites have been springing up all over the place with some of them attempting to mimic real news outlets such as the now-defunct ABCnews.com.co. whose logo looked remarkably similar to the well-known ABC news logo. Or the rather grandly titled Boston Tribune, which attempted to look like a traditional broadsheet newspaper website.
While it may be tempting to disregard surveys like this, the implications of them are profound. If Americans can’t easily spot a fake news story, what hope do the rest of us have? What’s more, the inability to discern fact from fiction risks eroding trust in all news outlets good and bad.
The founding fathers were astute enough to realise that a respected press was the cornerstone to holding government officials to account, highlighting important issues and educating the general population. If respect for traditional news sources is eroded to the point that people mistrust all news sources. Who will carry out these important functions in the future?
It is clear, then, that if democracy on both sides of the Atlantic is to be saved, something must be done to combat the spread of fake news and bots. One solution often muted is to ban bots altogether. But this is flawed thinking, not all bots are bad, just think of Siri for example. And in any case, it would be virtually impossible to ban bots from any platform which is open to the public.
A better solution is to use bots to fight bots. Algorithms have already been developed which attempt to identify bots based on how they interact with other users. However, while such algorithms are useful they are simply masking the issue and are unlikely to eradicate the problem completely.
A more practical approach is to educate users on how to spot fake news stories and evaluate the reliability of the source. Such media literacy courses are starting to be rolled out in schools on both sides of the Atlantic. But these are far from commonplace and would have to become a component of the national curriculum if they are to be effective.
Digital media also has a role to play. Advertisers need to be watchful which sites their advertising appears on. If you use remnant banner advertising on Google AdWords, for example, you need to monitor which sites your ads appear on. Displaying a well-known reputable brand on a fake news site unwittingly increases the legitimacy of such a site while providing a much-needed revenue source.
While it won’t solve the problem completely, eliminating their one and only source of revenue will go a long way to removing these sites from the internet.