Applications for the Shuttleworth foundation fellowship were due on the day before the Misinformation Workshop in Montreal, so I had to submit this before I flew to Canada, resulting in an unfortunately rushed video effort which needed to be included in my application. I only had a few days to put this application together between several other hard deadlines that same week, so that made things hard, which was disappointing all round, because the Shuttleworth Foundation fellowship looks like one of the best grant systems I have encountered.
I love the unique approach they take, their focus, and their open-mindedness around that focus. It is very refreshing to encounter that when I so often find myself never quite fitting into any of the requirements, conditions and/or expectations of virtually every other grant out there. No I am not with a university. No this isn’t from the USA. No we didn’t start in the last 12-24 months.
Everyone wants to support innovation, but no one ever seems willing to actually step outside of the system that already exists to find that innovation. You fit into the crowd, or you you don’t exist.
“Oh, you have a new idea? Fantastic. Please tell us about this new idea, and be sure to explain it in terms of how it is like Google or Uber, and don’t let the business model scare anyone.”
Anyway, side rant over. Shuttleworth didn’t give me that vibe at all. They have a mission to promote open access to knowledge, and they want to hear ideas on how that can be done. I love it.
I also found their serious of questions, which you are about to read below, to flow really naturally. I didn’t have to fight with the questions to communicate my vision. The questions made it easy.
Anyway, this is my application. All answers needed to be less than 1500 characters. Missing questions are multiple choice or factual ones “Where are you based?” “What is your email address” or stuff like that.
1) Tell us about the world as you see it.:
(A description of the status quo and context in which you will be working)
A lot of money and time is being invested in fighting misinformation right now, but by and large it is all missing the mark.
Efforts to improve media literacy are beneficial, but limited in reach. Other efforts to fund more journalists and fact checkers will provide value, but these alone have little impact on the creation and spread of misinformation.
Most solutions aim to flag and suppress the spread of misinformation. For example, Facebook recently launched a system which labels content as “Disputed” if it is evaluated as false by at least 2 fact checkers. The system also warns you repeatedly if you try to share it. Facebook isn’t filtering out misinformation directly, but they are definitely making it go away.
Wrong. The misinformation itself is not the real problem. The problem is that people are unable to accurately identify and critique misinformation.
Making misinformation go away actually makes things worse by lulling everyone into a false sense of security. People will become complacent and begin to uncritically accept anything they read. Why worry about it when the system has already checked it?
Not only is this solution frighteningly susceptible to abuse from people in charge of it, but its promotion of intellectual laziness will make the entire population vulnerable to any piece of particularly persuasive misinformation which sneaks in through some backdoor.
Suppression of misinformation is not the solution.
2) What change do you want to make in the world?:
(A description of what you want to change about the status quo, in the world, your personal vision for this area)
I want to make the world more capable of dealing with false information.
The solution to fake news is not another protective silo filtering out the bad information which may challenge us. The solution to fake news is regular engagement with misinformation within a critical framework. The solution to fake news is a population who knows how to spot it a mile away.
My vision of the web is one where any new story (URL1) will be entered into a centralised, open-access database as soon as the first critique of that story is published (URL2).
URL2 critiques URL1. Simple.
As more critiques are written, they are all added to the database against URL1. When you visit URL1, your browser provides access the those critiques. Good critiques can be upvoted, and the strongest will naturally rise to the top of the list for that page.
Duplications of the original story will be automatically added to the database as duplications of URL1. Every critique of URL1 will also follow those duplicate pages around too.
Want to share the article to Facebook? They won’t stop you. Nor will they hide the link from your friends. They won’t even flag the information as false! They will simply provide easy access to the list of critiques alongside the post, showing the strongest critique first, just like they do with every single other link in their news feed.
All managed from a simple, collaboratively designed and managed database with a very simple rule at its core: URL2 must critique URL1
3) What do you believe has prevented this change to date?:
(Describe the innovations or questions you would like to explore during the fellowship year)
I think the main reason that this change hasn’t happened yet is that it is deceptively simplistic yet philosophically challenging.
On one hand, many people understand that critical analysis of misinformation is a good way to debunk myths, teach people facts, and teach critical thinking in the process. But on the other hand, this system will also present critiques of “true” information on a completely equal footing, and that makes people very uncomfortable.
People are terrified of the idea of a widespread system which will indiscriminately challenge every single belief. Sometimes this is because people are insecure about their beliefs and don’t want them challenged. Sometimes it is because people are already upset with massive public denial of thoroughly established scientific consensus, and they cannot stand the idea of putting that public criticism on an even footing to peer reviewed papers.
Those fears are understandable, but how much longer do we have to keep using the same approach before we realise that we are still getting the same disappointing results? Over 40% of the US population denies the fact of evolution. How many more peer reviewed papers do we need to publish, and how many more creationist arguments do we need to block before they change their minds?
There are other technical reasons which may have impeded implementation of this idea in the past, but these are a distant second to the real reason just provided.
4) What are you going to do to get there?:
(A description of what you actually plan to do during the year)
I am currently working towards four key goals:
- Build a consortium of at least 3 key organisations (publishers, social media or platforms) who will actively participate in the design process of a new rebuttal database.
- Secure a commitment from at least one platform to implement a pilot system interface on their platform.
- Secure enough funding to develop the database and support the new organisational structure.
- Test key hypotheses with controlled scientific studies.
Building the consortium and securing commitments to implement the system from popular platforms is going to require strong, trust-based relationships. I will begin building many of these relationships next week at ICWSM-17 in Montreal. During the conference I will be attending the all day Workshop on Digital Misinformation. This workshop has participants from virtually every major organisation concerned with the Fake News phenomenon, and I will be working hard to connect with and start working with as many of them as possible.
To fund this project I am applying for multiple grants and awards, and will be launching a crowdfunding campaign in the near future. The aim is to get enough money to get us to pilot implementation in a major social media platform.
To test my hypotheses, I have already begun working with two HCI academics in Europe. We have already won a grant of €50,000 for a one year research project, and we are submitting our first paper for review on Monday. More experiments are being developed currently.
5) What challenges or uncertainties do you expect to face?:
I expect that the biggest challenge is going to be getting strong commitments from popular platforms and publishers to support the project. Fortunately we only need one or two to participate in the consortium, and one to implement a pilot system, for the value of the system to be demonstrated. However, getting the first ones are always the hardest.
The second biggest problem will be raising enough money to operate the organisation and develop the new database. Fortunately, there are a lot of funds available for projects working on misinformation at the moment.
It does occur to me that a Shuttleworth Fellowship would likely be the single most powerful asset I could have to address both of these problems. Warm introductions from past fellows to interested parties, backed with the confidence and financial support of the foundation will help break down most barriers immediately, helping us make this happen with much less resistance. I can’t overstate how valuable this fellowship would be to me in helping bring this vision to life.
As for uncertainties, we have many. I think any genuinely innovative solution which needs to be applied at scale to see if it works or not, is going to necessarily come with its own universe of uncertainty. It is for this reason that I have started pursuing scientific research in parallel with our development path. I want to reduce the uncertainty as much as possible.
6) What part does openness play in your idea?
Virtually everything about this idea is based on openness.
First, the philosophy which this system is encoding into the web is a philosophy dedicated to being open to contrary views, open to criticism, and open to doubt and uncertainty.
Second, the system will be built open source.
Third, the consortium built to guide the project will be an open, collaborative endeavour.
Fourth, the data held in the system will be open-access. Free for everyone to use, and integrate or develop on top of.
The current wave of fear of misinformation is causing people to agree to close off parts of the internet. To censor out ideas that they find disruptive. To further reinforce the echo chambers which are already too strong. What can be more closed than isolated communities of people unable to communicate with one another?
My idea is the antidote to that problem.
This idea blows echo chambers wide open.
9) How have you funded your initiative in the past?
The StartupChile accelerator program provided some equity free funding in 2012.
10) Who are your current or potential key partners?
Our current academic partners are Assistant Professor Nava Tintarev at the Delft University of Technology in the Netherlands, and Dr Adrian Holzer at EPFL in Switzerland.
We have a strong network of partners in the skeptic communities around the globe, and have started working with several misinformation fighting projects, freely sharing our rebuttal database with them.
The key partners that we are aiming to bring onboard with the project are representatives of Facebook, Google, Microsoft, Twitter, Mozilla, W3C, Reddit, WordPress, Wikipedia, Hypothes.is, Poynter, Politifact, Snopes, Buzzfeed, and others.
14) Do you have an online presence?
Please Provide Links to your Web Presence/s