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Fake news, trolls point to grim future

News, 30 March 2017
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WASHINGTON, DC: The problems of fake news, trolling and online harassment are unlikely to disappear any time soon, experts believe, and may even get worse, with potential implications for the nature of the internet and online communications.

Pew Research Center and Elon University's Imagining the Internet Center conducted a large-scale (non-random) canvassing of technology experts, scholars, corporate practitioners and government leaders over six weeks in summer 2016 and gathered responses from 1,537 people.

Asked whether public discourse online would become more or less shaped by bad actors, harassment and trolls over the coming decade, few were optimistic, with just 19% expecting the internet to be "less shaped" by these factors.

Some 42% did not expect any significant change in the online social climate – it will remain bad – while 39% saw things becoming worse.

And since the survey was carried out before the revelations late last year about how fake news and possible manipulation of public opinion via hacking of social media, one could think the scales may have since tilted even further to the dark side.

Pew identified four major themes from the responses, including two revolving around why things will remain bad. One is that "to troll is human" and that anonymity abets bad behaviour online; the other is that tangible and intangible economic and political incentives support trolling.

The remaining two themes envisage ways that things may get better, albeit at the cost of altering the very nature of the internet, a development that businesses might consider including in their scenario planning.

In one vision of the future, the online world splinters into segmented, controlled social zones thanks to the use of AI sentiment analysis to detect inappropriate behaviour.

A second option sees greater state regulation of debate and consequent "pervasive surveillance" to deal with hostile behaviour (although what constitutes "hostile" is not defined) – and the censorship that implies.

Such attempts to deal with the problems of harassment would likely alter people's sharing behaviors online as they tried to protect their privacy.

"Increased monitoring, regulation and enforcement will shape content to such an extent that the public will not gain access to important information and possibly lose free speech," Pew observed.

Data sourced from Pew Research Center; additional content by WARC staff

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