An embarrassing slip-up by a Chinse media outfit illustrates the point: fake news and satire is different - but can algorithms spot the difference?
According to one US publication, President Trump, has been traipsing the White House in his dressing gown, and has ordered his press secretary Sean Spicer to wrap all telephones in tin foil to make sure Barack Obama cannot listen in.
Ho, ho, very funny!
It is just that one Chinese publication reported the story as fact, although it was then promptly taken down.
So what, you might ask?
But forward wind the clock, and imagine algorithms censoring news to determine whether it is fake. Google has not used those words exactly, but it is looking at ways to classify stories as fake news.
But how good will such an algorithm be at differentiating between fake news and satire – or indeed irony?
US credit currently sits at $65 trillion dollars, according to the famous US investor Bill Gross. Supposing an article said “$65 trillion dollars! Barely enough to buy a pizza.” It is that fake news, or an attempt at a joke?
If you ever studied Chaucer you will know he peppered his poetry with irony, but sometimes the irony was quite subtle – pretty hard for A-Level students to spot, maybe an algorithm may find it harder still.
A few weeks ago, Apple boss Tim Cook said: “We are going through this period of time right here where unfortunately some of the people that are winning are the people that spend their time trying to get the most clicks, not tell the most truth,” he said. “It’s killing people’s minds in a way.”
He is not wrong – but be careful; the backlash against fake news may suck the fun out of journalism and kill satire altogether.
In the Ricky Gervais film, the Invention of Lying, Ricky Gervais was the first man to learn how to lie. He went into this bank. And told the cashier that he had a certain sum of money in the account and wanted to withdraw it, and the cashier believed him, because no one ever lied.
Alas, there was no fiction in this world. Fiction is after all, by definition a lie, but most of can tell the difference, and of course fiction can be a very effective way of highlighting aspects of reality.
Fake news is not new. Politicians, monarchs and leaders have been lying since the day we have had them. The media has always distorted the truth, and those that don’t can sometimes seem quite bland.
Fake news is a curse of the world, but in trying to stop it, be careful what you stop.