Lying at scale wasn't the intent that Google, AOL or Yahoo had in mind when the currency of digital was all about capturing "eyeballs." That came later. It was Facebook, YouTube and Twitter who perfected the engineering of community outrage. They successfully turned digital rubbernecking into an alternative form of breaking news. That may be the fatal flaw of Web 2.0: We built the greatest communication technology in history, but all of its financial incentives reward B.S. over veracity, and mob action over logical discourse.
We have no one to blame but ourselves, which means we also have an obligation to fix the problem.
Needed: an architecture with real-world values
Imagine what an offline ad campaign for ISIS might look like. Flyers highlighting stories (real and fake) of the downfall of American society are distributed at supermarkets. High school students get t-shirts and regular invites to weekend ISIS rallies. Somewhere in Times Square, a neon billboard directs prospects to an ISIS recruitment center.
The premise is absurd. Tactics like this in the "real world" would be abruptly quashed before they ever got started.
But online, we haven't had much success interdicting the radicalization recruitment funnel. The problem isn't technology -- today's digital tools are incredibly robust -- it's our reluctance to apply societal norms of the physical world to the digital context. In the public square, intolerance, bigotry, alternative facts or disinformation tend to be quickly revealed as unscrupulous and even dangerous. Online, without the context of the public square, blue lies and deception can be made to look normal, even popular.
A modest proposal for digital guardrails
On the street corner, a man standing on a garbage can shouting conspiracy theories is discounted by the absurdity of his context. But online, the lack of context gives the same message a potential following.
In the new digital public square, what if online credibility actually meant something? What if every legitimate reporter and blogger carried with them a reputational ranking as a part of their credentials? What if every political tweet or Facebook post automatically carried with it a fact check? What if brand marketers only chose to advertise on A-rated reputation pages? What if content quality earned the publisher and author a higher level of ad share?
Instead of engaging in a whack-a-mole game to ban egregious behavior, why not build a reward system around the reputational value of content?
Couldn't Facebook, the Internet Advertising Bureau or the Federal Trade Commission roll out a measure for reputational authenticity instead of another variation of the smiley face? Put another way, couldn't the internet find a way to make heroes as easily as it seems able to create victims? We need to find a better way to organize and communicate online, and that may require some guardrails.
This our fight, because advertisers depend on a fact-based world.
The stakes in this fight are bigger than advertising. But advertising is the currency of the internet and is therefore the logical broker in this fight. But make no mistake, this is a fight we all need to win, because, sooner or later, the internet economy is going to depend on standards of accuracy.
Google and Facebook have already said they won't serve ads to fake news sites. But starving a lie isn't the same as supporting the truth. We need to be proactive and come up with a set of digital guardrails that supports the truth.