We don’t even know how far the problem has spread. But organizations are already starting to try to stop it. Facebook has shrunk news posts its algorithms deem as “fake,” and, perhaps more tepidly, is using machine learning to predict the falsehood of posts.
But luckily, they’re not alone in the fight. A company called eyeo — the team behind the popular Adblock Plus browser extension — is going for a different approach. In an interview with Tech Crunch, director of ecosystems Ben Williams reveals eyeo’s own approach in the fight against fake news: building a web browser extension that rates sites by trustworthiness. It will eventually rely on user feedback to determine whether a source is trustworthy or full of it.
It’s a two-stage project. They company’s new extension called Trusted News (you think they could’ve come up with a sexier name) first cross-references the site you are currently visiting with four third-party fact-checkers: Politifact, Snopes, Wikipedia, and Zimdars’ List. The idea is simple: each third party gives every site a rating. If they all agree, it’s ‘true,’ if they don’t, the site gets flagged.
But hold up, are these third parties really trustworthy? In short, mostly. With the help of Tampa Bay Times reporters and editors, PolitiFact combs through every statement (and lewd tweet) that comes out of the White House. But like any fact-checking service, it’s not 100 percent accurate all the time. And let’s not forget that while Wikipedia is an extensive, open-source encyclopedia, it’s not infallible. With a simple edit, knowledge can be twisted, history rewritten.
Back to eyeo’s tool. In stage two, the company plans to open up fact-checking to include user feedback on an ethereum-based blockchain. By working with the MetaCert Protocol — a registry that makes sure you’re not visiting any phony URLs — eyeo wants to shift this registry to a blockchain, to secure it from any tampering.
After a period in which users can dispute Trusted News’ claims and ratings, eyeo wants to “decouple that from any server, and from any third party, and give it directly to the blockchain,” Williams tells Tech Crunch. It’s like a decentralized, user-input-reliant fake news service that would live independently from the likes of Wikipedia or Snopes.
To motivate users to give feedback, each submission gets the user a reward. What that reward will look like is still unclear, but I’m betting it’ll be a tiny denomination of a mostly worthless cryptocurrency.
But having users determine the “truthiness” of web content is bound to ruffle some feathers. For instance, FOX News is a-ok, while Breitbart is “biased” — conclusions that will invariably displease those on either end of the political spectrum.
It’s a unique approach to a growing problem. Facebook clearly has its hands full, but machine learning, and algorithms will only get them so far. A decentralized, user feedback approach might have a much better shot at fighting fake news. And with close to a billion downloads, AdBlock Plus shows there’s plenty of demand for browser-based solutions to problems encountered while trawling the internet, including annoying ads.
But it will come down to each individual user to decide if an aggregate of user ratings is enough to convince them if a site is full of fake news or not. But people trust Wikipedia, people care if a movie is certified Fresh on Rotten Tomatoes. Solutions like eyeo’s might make great strides towards stopping the scourge of fake news online.