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B.S. Detector And The Rise Of ‘Fake News’ Detection Software

CBS News reported developers increased pressure on Facebook to address its “fake news problem” with a browser extension for Chrome and Firefox called the “B.S. Detector.” It claimed the extension relies upon “a constantly-updated list of known fake news sites, propaganda mills and ‘promoters of kooky conspiracy theories'” as a reference point.

However, CBS News was wrong. The extension is not “constantly updated.” The extension, as developer Daniel Sieradski shared, was created to “make fun” of Facebook. Sieradski “scraped some data together” that included sites, which are not “fake news” websites. (One of those sites was Shadowproof.com.)

“B.S. Detector” displays a red banner that indicates a news website is “not a reliable news source.” Up until publication, the extension still flagged Consortium News, Naked Capitalism, Truthout, and Truthdig, even though Sieradski said they would not be listed in the update.

Around twenty volunteers worked on an update to the extension to correct “performance” issues that were highlighted by tech websites and pledged to remove sites that should not have been in the dataset used to make a list.

CBS News, as well as the tech websites, never thought to question the criteria or process for including websites in the extension. They presumed all the websites were actual “fake news” websites.

Sieradski and his team gave minimal consideration to the possibility that certain media organizations may be inappropriately or unfairly listed. He created a thread at Github.com for users to report “links” that should be added or removed from the extension. He also is responsive to those on Twitter, who criticize the extension.

When CBS News published their story, “B.S. Detector” had more than 26,000 users. The number of users installing it has not increased exponentially since the CBS News story. Yet, this presents an opportunity to address some significant questions that Sieradski did not or refused to contemplate prior to launch.

What is “fake news”? How does one categorize content in order to flag a website as “not a reliable news source”? How does one account for user-generated content versus content, which goes through an editorial process prior to publication? How many pieces of content must be published to a website before it can sufficiently be labeled a “fake news” website?

Why have an amorphous label like “fake news” when there are better specific classification to be applied? If “fake news” incorporates “sources that fabricate stories out of whole cloth with the intent of pranking the public,” how does one discern what content is the product of pranks?

If a site is deemed to have “extreme bias,” what does this mean? Does this mean that the website reports news and publishes analysis with a clear point of view? The extension website says it must “traffic in political propaganda and gross distortions of fact.” Can it traffic in one and not the other and still be in this category? What is political propaganda? Does it have to be tied to a political campaign, lobbying firm, or some other shady non-governmental organization?

What is the difference between a website that promotes “kooky conspiracy theories” and one that is a “rumor mill”? The extension pledges to only include sites that are “well-known promoters of kooky conspiracy theories.” What is being used to determine and verify that a site is, in fact, a “well-known” website that peddles conspiracy?

The extension labels “state news” or “sources in repressive states operating under government sanction.” What criteria or source is used to determine if a government is repressive? Why not label all news outlets with state-sponsored funds as “state news”? Wouldn’t all news outlets, including Voice of America, carry some level of content that could be used to advance government agendas?

Why should a “fake news” extension be in the business of discouraging readers from visiting websites with “clickbait”? Stories with sensational headlines that use “eye-catching pictures” are not part of the “fake news” problem. This phenomenon is separate and a symptom of the decline of newspapers.

What about the category, “Proceed With Caution”? Why include a largely undefined category that suggests a site “may be reliable” but the site’s “contents require further verification”? Shouldn’t the developers of any extension available for browsers be able to specifically define why a site should be included before adding it to the extension’s list?

Should the developers of an extension like this contact the editorial staff of any news website it wants to add and give them an opportunity to object? Would that be a way to avoid snafus in the future?

As journalist Adam Klasfeld argued, the problem with “B.S. Detector” (and any other “fake news” detection software) is it is “blacklist-centric.” The focus should be on “disclosure” instead of affixing “digital scarlet letters” to news sites.

One of the main reasons why “fake news” is able to spread so easily and influence so many is because citizens lack media literacy. Klasfeld persuasively insists an extension like “B.S. Detector” might be valuable if it popped up information on who or what funds the news website, whether the site has any conflicts of interest, who is on the masthead of the website, and whether it engages in reporting that relies on source documents or original reporting.

There are additional issues with Sieradski’s extension, but first, there is the issue of whether Sieradski is ready to take responsibility for the slapdash nature of the initial rollout.

Sieradski claims he never expected this to achieve the kind of success or interest it has garnered in the past couple weeks. He seems reluctant to own the mistakes made and publish a list of the websites that were wrongly included in the initial launch in order to exonerate them.

It does not matter if the improper inclusion of certain websites was done maliciously or accidentally. The effect is the same, at this point. People who do not know better can install the extension, and if they become a unique or new viewer to Consortium News, Naked Capitalism, Truthout, or Truthdig, they will see a red banner that may discourage them from further reading and visits to these sites.

The developers also possess a few viewpoints, which may inhibit their ability to develop an extension that is objective and valuable to news readers.

One, Sieradski has no idea how to handle the problem of corporate news media, which publishes “fake news.” Journalist Marcy Wheeler asked Sieradski why “mainstream fake news” was not flagged through this extension. She wondered why “Squawk Box” financial-type news that pushes a made-up “market” narrative is not flagged. Or what about Fox News? Why aren’t they flagged as a “fake news” website?

Sieradski replied, “We’re working on gathering data on all NewsCorp titles,” and looking for “examples of false stories that point to a pattern of intent to mislead the public.”

It is abundantly evident the developers are going through a much more rigorous process to determine whether it is proper to include Fox News than it is going through other independent news media sites that possibly should not be flagged. Of course, their inclusion is much more detrimental to them because unlike corporate news outlets they do not have significant money and resources. They are fledgling operations—possibly a lot like Sieradski’s hackneyed software development operation—that do the best they can on a shoestring operation and constantly seek out ways to define themselves among a competitive and vast news economy.

Second, Sieradski and his team refuse to remove WikiLeaks. Their bias against WikiLeaks is similar to the bias among establishment news media. It initially had WikiLeaks categorized as a “rumor mill.” Sieradski argued WikiLeaks “publishes unconfirmed rumors and innuendo like DNC staffer Seth Rich was murdered by Hillary Clinton.” However, in making this assertion, Sieradski could point to no documents or posts on WikiLeaks to substantiate this claim.

Sieradski linked to two Twitter statuses posted by WikiLeaks. That raises the following question: Can a website be flagged by the extension if its website has no “fake news,” “rumors,” or “conspiracy theories” but uses its social media account to peddle unverifiable information? That may potentially open up a lot of news websites to flagging.

After two days of challenges to WikiLeaks’ inclusion, Sieradski budged and changed the label for WikiLeaks to, “Caution: Source may be reliable but contents require further verification.” Still, Sieradski cannot point to a single example on the WikiLeaks website so by attaching this red flag to the WikiLeaks website the extension is inaccurately implying to readers that they may want to beware of unverified or forged documents.

Sieradski is a donor for the Committee to Protect Journalists and the Freedom of the Press Foundation. He supports the Electronic Frontier Foundation and the American Civil Liberties Union. He has donated to the defense funds for NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden and U.S. Army whistleblower Chelsea Manning. He just no longer supports WikiLeaks, even though he once donated to their media organization. So, there appears to be something personal Sieradski needs to work through or the credibility of his extension will continue to be undermined.

In conclusion, if Sieradski and his team wish to press onward with the development of this extension as a serious venture, especially given the favorable media attention it has garnered, there are key issues related to the popularized and flawed concept of “fake news” that must be confronted. It will never be possible to establish universal agreement that a certain set of “fake news” websites are all “fake news” websites. That is because “fake news” is currently as amorphously defined and subject to interpretation as the definition of “terrorism.”

Whether such an extension should exist or not is beside the point. Developers will try and address “fake news” by giving users tools to detect “fake news.” That means it is important for Sieradski to recognize and take seriously the extent to which establishment media and even establishment politicians may be willing to trust his extension is appropriately conceived.

The issue of “fake news” is rather complex. While installing an extension may lead one to believe this is a quick way for the public to do its part in addressing a perceived problem, it is necessary to recognize the placebo effect an extension like this may have in our quest to find a cure.

9th Circuit Court of Appeals. Photo by Karol Franks on Flickr.
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Kevin Gosztola

Kevin Gosztola

Kevin Gosztola is managing editor of Shadowproof Press. He also produces and co-hosts the weekly podcast, "Unauthorized Disclosure."