For many decades, science advocates and scientific skeptics have been fighting misinformation on the Internet. False claims about evolution and climate change have spread like wildfire and there are many organizations and individuals out there that take great pleasure in spreading pseudoscientific nonsense about these scientific fields to anyone who wants to listen. The Internet is a great invention and has allowed more people than ever to access the depth of human knowledge, but it also has a dark side. It is now possible to be wrong about a great deal of things, yet quickly find large communities of mutually self-reinforcing discussions that share those misconceptions. So, in a sense, fake news is a not a new problem.
The pervasive problem with fake news came to the attention of the public and the mainstream during the 2016 general election in the United States where a ton of websites and other outlets spread sensationalist misinformation about both Clinton and Trump in order to get as many clicks and as much ad revenue as possible. Unfortunately, this led to a very uninformed population that harbored a lot of false beliefs about the world. In particular, fake news website often published content that aimed to make people upset and angry, because manipulating feelings has been shown to be very effective for spreading a message.
Yet, there is a growing resistance movement to the problem of fake news. From scientists and skeptics to news organizations and tech companies, there is an increasing realization that something has to be done. Some companies like Facebook are already starting to make plans on how to remove the possibility for those fake news websites to use their advertisement system or even engage in collaboration with independent fact-checkers (Isaac, 2016).
What did Tim Cook say about fake news?
In an exclusive interview published by the Telegraph (Heath, 2017; Stelter, 2017), Cook discussed the problem of fake news at some length and made his position quite clear. He thinks it is a considerable problem and would like to see a massive public information campaign against the problem, because it is “killing people’s minds”. He points out that large tech companies should create methods to reduce the amount and impact of fake news, but is also carefully to note that this crackdown on fake news to help readers navigate the troubled waters of fact and misinformation has to be done without needlessly restricting the ability of people to express themselves or become detrimental to the press.
Cook is painfully aware that senseless clickbait is profiting over high-quality journalism and wants to see a world where the reliable and fact-checked journalism will be victories over empty nonsense. He suggests that it is important to understand that the world is changing and that perhaps there should be a new course on some of these issues might be beneficial, just like it was with climate and environment issues. Cooks is thus in many ways a pragmatic realist. He understands that this could very well be something that we have to work with younger generations to iron out. In the end, Cook is optimistic and ultimately believes that fake news will be a short-term problem because it is not a thing that people want. They want real stuff and they want to be informed.
What does this mean for the misinformation wars?
It is vital and absolutely fantastic that a giant like the Apple CEO Tim Cook has spoken out against fake news. People like Cook have great power and great influence and often uses it to the benefit of people. Once there is an emerging consensus among tech companies like Apple, Google, Facebook and others on the problems, challenges and proposed solutions to fake news, it is probably the case that we will see a great decline in the spread of fake news. Their combined efforts might not just reduce it on their own platforms, but restricting ad revenue to fake news websites might cripple them to some extent. Should the tech companies also invest time and effort into building reliable and effective fact-checking collaborations and tools, it might be a powerful backlash against fake news.
Should we be as optimistic as Cook? Right now, fake news seem like an increasingly destructive and malignant phenomena. We should also not forget that fake news is just pseudoscience applied to politics. Making shit up for views, attention, income and to spread misinformation. Groups like creationists and climate deniers have done this for decades. Thus, it is perhaps not entirely accurate to say that this is a short-term problem, but it tech companies like Apple, Google and Facebook could develop effective tools to fight fake news and misinformation, this might do considerable damage to pseudoscience generally. That would be an enormously welcome development.
References and further reading
Heath, A. (2017). Fake news is killing people’s minds, says Apple boss Tim Cook (cache | cache). The Telegraph. Accessed: 2017-02-13
Stelter, B. (2017). Apple CEO Tim Cook calls for “massive campaign” against fake news. (cache | cache). CNN. Accessed: 2017-02-13