Compendium of Solutions for Fake News

fakeThanks to a perfect storm of political rancor, social media algorithms, and malicious actors, fake news has become a major challenge for American democracy.

Many researchers and journalists have proposed policies and interventions to combat fake news, including those as summarized in recent overviews by Brookings, BBC, the New York TimesForbes, and the Washington Post.

Here are commonly proposed solutions:

News Industry

The news industry needs to do all possible to define and promote honest, fair, professional journalism. Providing more background information and transparency enhances legitimacy of the industry.

Simultaneously, the industry needs to quickly and effectively identify and debunk fake news (easier said than done). The way fake news is corrected often matters: for example, researchers have shown that video often works better than text, repeating the fake news can unintentionally reinforce it, and partisan voices correcting the news (Republicans debunking conservative news, Democrats debunking liberal news) is most effective.

Government

The government needs to value and promote a free and fair press. Government programs should be careful not to censor nor constrain journalists, and should include programs to support and protect quality journalism. Since journalism and government are often (by design) at odds, support for journalism needs to be codified in law.

In addition, government bodies should identify and censure organizations promoting fake news. In the case of hostile activities by foreign actors, government should aggressively identify and sanction malicious entities working to undermine American trust in the media.

Technology Companies

Technology companies, especially social media companies, need to be strict and consistent in enforcing rules about malicious or fake accounts, such as in Twitter’s recent purge of thousands of accounts. In addition, companies require improved systems and algorithms for accurate and fair identification and removal of fake news. Technology firms have made great progress in combatting spam and demarcating pornography online. Similar progress is required for fake news.

Simultaneously, technology companies need to review their business models, particularly with respect to online advertising, to make sure that those purveying fake news are not financially rewarded for information going viral.

There are other specific steps which would also be useful. For example, in a recent New York Times Op-Ed, former FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler suggests requiring social media companies to provide an API to their news algorithms. This would protect both IP and user personal identification, but allow third parties to monitor how the platform might be used for malicious intent.

Educational Institutions

Educational institutions — from kindergarten through university — need to expose students to the challenges of fake news, and train students to be sophisticated and informed consumers of news. This can happen in classes specifically designed for news literacy, but also any class demanding research, analysis, and presentation of ideas.

Individuals

Individuals need to recognize that the news environment is hostile, there are objectively better and worse sources of information, and it is everyone’s responsibility to enhance their own media literacy. Two good initial steps are to work to diversify the news sources you rely on, and to understand the skepticism and effort required to be an honest, productive consumer of news.

Is Extreme Poverty Incompatible with Broadband?

global wifiIs it possible to have a community with extreme poverty (under $1.25 per day per person) in an environment with inexpensive, reliable broadband?

On its face, this seems an absurd question: reliable broadband almost by definition tracks to communities with sufficient resources to afford it. It’s a bit like saying “is it possible to have extreme poverty in an environment where houses also have swimming pools?”.

But it isn’t so simple — in fact, all poor communities on the planet will be getting reliable, reasonably-priced broadband in the next few years. So what does that imply for extreme poverty?

Even if broadband isn’t affordable to individuals, it is typically affordable to government officials, health clinics, some schools, international NGOs, and others. Once broadband arrives, government programs can reach citizens. International efforts, including direct cash payments, are enabled. Economic advantages of better information and price data are available. Efficiencies around transportation and supply chains are immediately presented.

Or to think about it another way, for a community to really be stuck below $1.25 per person, it almost by definition needs to be isolated, cut off from any economic opportunities or support programs whatsoever. $1.25 per day is an amazingly low number.

So it is reasonable at least to postulate that extreme poverty is in fact incompatible with broadband. (Term this crazy idea “Cashel’s Law”?)

Coming to Terms with Fake News

newsFake news (the “purposely deceptive” kind, not the “I don’t like it” kind) is starting to be recognized in American society for the threat to democracy which it is.

Two major development occurred recently.

First, the Mueller investigation issued 13 indictments against Russian nationals for efforts to subvert the 2016 election. While the indictments are consistent with what American intelligence agencies have been saying for many months, the fact that the announcement comes from the Mueller investigation and actually names real people brings a new level of legitimacy and concern to the issue.

Second, a new Air Force research paper (as reported in the Washington Post) provides many specific examples of how Russian, Islamic State, and other propagandists effectively manipulate Twitter and other social media platforms to sow dissent and falsehoods. Efforts are at the national level — such as support for the Trump or Sanders campaigns — or at the local level — such as effectively heightening racial tensions at the University of Missouri.

While the description of the problems are detailed, the description of effective solutions are not. At least the first step to confronting the issue of fake news is to clearly identify and define the problem.

A Quick Primer on Global Poverty

poverty“Extreme Poverty” is currently defined as an individual living on less than $1.25 per day. Using this benchmark, in 1990 47% of the world’s population was living in extreme poverty. As of today, that figure has dropped dramatically, now approaching 10%. The UN identifies the first of its “Sustainable Development Goals” as the elimination of extreme poverty by 2030.

Much of the progress in reducing extreme poverty is thanks to efforts in five countries: China, India, Indonesia, Pakistan, and Vietnam. These countries alone moved an astonishing 700 million citizens out of extreme poverty between 1990 and 2010. Unfortunately, in Africa during the same period, the number of people in extreme poverty rose from 290 to 414 million people.

The task of eliminating extreme poverty gets progressively harder the closer we get to zero. Those still in extreme poverty are generally in rural or remote areas, lacking electricity, sanitation, transportation, internet, or other fundamental services.

While the number of people in “extreme poverty” is dropping, it is important to remember that most of the planet is still extremely poor. About half of the planet lives on less than $2.50 per day.

Internet.org

internet-org.pngInternet.org is the Facebook funded and directed initiative to increase global connectivity. The name “Internet.org” confuses some, since it sounds like a neutral, non-profit initiative. It is in fact an initiative of Facebook. Current site branding refers to “Internet.org by Facebook”.

On launch of Internet.org in 2013, much of the media attention related to connectivity issues, in particular comparing Facebook’s Project Aquila (drones) to Google’s Project Loon (balloons). Internet.org continues to pursue new connectivity options (although with setbacks, including the explosion of a 2016 SpaceX rocket carrying an Israeli satellite to be used by Facebook in Africa).

More recently, Internet.org is more closely associated with the Facebook Free Basics program, which provides free access to Facebook and other selected content in over 60 developing countries. In these efforts, Facebook is simultaneously lauded for subsidizing access while criticized for restricting content. Facebook employs a system for deciding which third-party content will be included — such as wikipedia, wikihow, education sites, health sites (but not including content from direct competitors). Internet.org also offers access for app developers to the Innovation Lab at Facebook Headquarters in California. The lab mimics bandwidth and device constraints in many global environments.

Controversies around Free Basics became particularly intense in India, to the point where Facebook cancelled the service there in 2016.

Internet.org describes many legitimate motivations for expanding global broadband access. Its impressive progress, however, is also clearly in Facebook’s corporate interest. In many locales “Facebook” is synonymous with “the internet”. For example, Research in 2015 showed that 65% of Nigerians, 61% of Indonesians, and 58% of Indians agreed with the statement “Facebook is the internet.” (Only 5% of Americans agreed.)

Facebook’s penetration in developing countries outside of Internet.org and Free Basics also includes WhatsApp, which it acquired in 2014. In many countries WhatsApp is the dominant app for new users.

Facebooks metrics show that it is having great success penetrating new markets. Facebook grew from one billion daily users to two billion since 2013. Only 41 million of those new users are from the US and Canada.

Sustainable Development Goals and Broadband

sdgIn 2000, the United Nations established the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), a set of eight development targets to be achieved by 2015. Each goal had associated metrics and timelines.

Progress towards the goals was uneven at both a country and international level. Some goals were not achieved (such as reductions in child and maternal mortality rates), while other goals were actually achieved early (such as global reduction in poverty, mostly thanks to China and India).

In addition to mixed success, the goals prompted debate about whether the best, most legitimate eight goals were chosen. There was a parallel debate around the chosen success metrics.

Despite the shortcomings or disputes, however, the MDGs are widely credited with increasing attention, funding, and coordination around fundamentally important global milestones.

As the end of the 15 year window approached, the United Nations launched a follow-on effort entitled the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Careful to avoid criticism of a hasty selection of targets, the UN considered literally hundreds of possible goals, eventually (and painfully) winnowing down to 17 goals — including 169 “targets” and 304 “indicators”. (The large number of goals, targets and indicators unleashed a new wave of criticism.)

So what does all of this have to do with broadband everywhere? A lot, actually.

It’s quite easy to point to the key role broadband will play in achieving each of the goals. Goal 1, for example, “elimination of poverty”, will be directly impacted due to increased economic growth. Goal 2, “zero hunger”, will be directly impacted through better communications, coordination, and policy implementation.

Some goals stand out as particularly tied to broadband access. Goal 3, “good health and well-being”, and Goal 4, “quality education”, are particularly intertwined with the internet. Goal 8, “decent work and economic growth”, is as well.

Broadband indeed plays such an important role across the SDGs that the UN’s Broadband Commission updated their name in 2015 to the Broadband Commission for Sustainable Development.

Aadhaar Basics

aadhaarAadhaar is the Indian government’s resident identification number system which has registered about 1.2 billion Indians — nearly the entire country. While Aadhaar doesn’t directly relate to internet communications, it is both dependent on and enabling of many online services.

Aadhaar is a random 12 digit number that links to biometric data, typically a photo, ten fingerprints and two iris scans. Soon Aadhaar will include facial recognition services as well.

Registration with Aadhaar is voluntary, but so many government and commercial services are now linked to Aadhaar (welfare programs, pensions, banking services, mobile phone accounts, etc.), Aadhaar is used by essentially everyone in India.

Like any powerful technology, Aadhaar brings both profound advantages and significant risks.

An Aadhaar identification number allows Indian citizens — including its poorest — ready access to information and services heretofore unavailable. It increases efficiency and decreases corruption.

On the other hand, identity services such as this can lead to data breaches, fraud, and abuse.

Many countries are developing or refining their own identification systems. Aadhaar is currently the largest, and in many ways, most impactful personal identification system on the planet.

Digital Evolution Index

DEI_reportTufts University, in cooperation with Mastercard, has developed a Digital Evolution Index (DEI) which ranks countries based on their progress in digital development. The DEI includes 60 countries evaluated across over 100 different indicators. In its main ranking, the DEI compares overall digital development to recent digital progress in order to see which countries are innovating and improving most effectively.

In 2017 the latest report was issued. It includes a number of key findings (nicely summarized in the Executive Summary), including:

  • Three countries in the “stand out” category are making particularly strong progress: Singapore, New Zealand, and UAE. Each has employed active government programs worthy of emulation by other countries;
  • A number of countries in the “stall out” category, such as the US, South Korea, and the Scandinavian countries, are ranked highly but not showing many continued improvements. This is understandable — it is hard to improve forever — but also may indicate complacency;
  • Countries in the “break out” category, such as China, Kenya and Bolivia, are showing great momentum which bodes well for the future;
  • Countries in the “watch out” category, such as Egypt, Pakistan and Peru, are at a low level of development and not showing marked progress;
  • A focus on mobile infrastructure brings the biggest return on investment for least advanced countries;
  • Government policy and initiatives play a major role in the relative success of digital development in a country;
  • Offering access at reasonable pricing isn’t sufficient. Technology providers and government agencies need to provide the privacy, security and accountability to engender trust.

Tufts also provides details about methodology, background papers, and access to the underlying data.

Update from Davos

wefIn preparation for the World Economic Forum’s annual event in 2017, the International Telecommunications Union (ITU) published a working paper “Connecting the Unconnected” which offers current data and program updates regarding global broadband. It’s a very useful document — the endnotes are particularly impressive — and author Imme Philbeck deserves credit.

The document outlines the many reasons why 53% of the world’s population (~3.9 billion people) is still offline:

  • Access: 1/3 of the world’s population is further than 100 km from a fiber connection (although 84% do live within range of 3G);
  • Infrastructure: Many of the poorest on the planet don’t have electricity — a prerequisite for internet access;
  • Cost: 57% of the world’s population can’t afford internet access as offered;
  • Education: Only 44% of the world’s population has a secondary education or higher — a clear predictor of internet usage;
  • Relevance: Many in the poorest countries don’t see the relevance of online services (and may be actively opposed).

The document outlines that progress is strong in more urban environments, but significant obstacles still exist in rural areas. New technologies (satellite, balloons, drones) may help, but are still several years from implementation. The issue of relevance and cultural acceptance may in fact prove to be the most daunting for the poorest regions.

The Link Between Broadband and Economic Growth

econDoes broadband spur economic growth? The intuitive answer is “of course” (unless new users do nothing but watch cat videos…). Two representative research studies take a more rigorous and quantitative approach to this question.

The first, from the World Bank, is “Exploring the Relationship Between Broadband and Economic Growth” (2016). The author, Michael Minges, reviews a number of studies that collectively show increases of GDP in the 1-2% range for every 10% increase in national broadband penetration.

The second, from Ericsson and Imperial College, is “How Important are Mobile Broadband Networks for Global Economic Development?” (2017). The study reviewed data from 135 countries and concluded that a 10% increase in mobile broadband penetration causes a 0.6-2.8 percent rise in Gross Domestic Product (GDP).

Both of these studies confront difficulties in researching this topic: securing timely and accurate data, teasing apart correlation and causation, trying to implement randomized controlled study design. Nonetheless, the preponderance of evidence suggests that broadband adoption has prompt and significant impact on GDP.

 

Addendum: A new study from the National Bureau of Economic Research concludes that the arrival of broadband to 12 African nations was responsible for 10 percent of the rise in employment.