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Review bots, fake news, and the misinformation age

This will be considered ancient news now, but it’s often better to analyze headlines when the buzz is over. The Last Jedi opened before the holidays as one of the highest-rated Star Wars movies ever according to Rotten Tomatoes critics score. As the audiences started talking about it, it became clear that the RT audience score would not be that generous, creating the site’s widest audience-critic gulf in the history of “Star Wars” films. Considering how well the movie did in the box office, some started speculating if the low audience ratings accurately reflected the opinions of moviegoers or it was the result of mass trolling, persistent angry fans logging in with different usernames or even a network of Facebook bots.

That was a somewhat fitting way to close a year when much of the electronic print medium was used debating whether or not Russian hackers had an influence in the US presidential election and for #fakenews arguments have been used widely by all sides of the political spectrum. Regardless of where your beliefs sit in this endless conversation, these stories have legs because they are actually plausible. There are enough hackers, trolls, and automation resources in our digital ecosystem to make possible to create a digital reality that does not necessarily reflect the analog world. That’s why sites like Amazon that rely heavily on candid reviews to drive their readership or sales are investing heavily in legal and technical measures to fight fake traffic, content, and ratings generators:

An Amazon spokesperson said it invests heavily to ensure customers can trust reviews on Amazon, saying, “We use a machine-learned algorithm that gives more weight to newer, more helpful reviews, apply strict criteria to qualify for the Amazon Verified Purchase badge and enforce a significant dollar amount requirement to participate, in addition to other mechanisms which prevent and detect inauthentic reviews.” The company says even one inauthentic review is unacceptable. All reviewers in the U.S. must have an account, used for at least $50 in purchases on Amazon. In 2016, Amazon filed a suit against companies like Amazonverifiedreviews.com and Buyamazonreviews.info that sold fake reviews. (Source: Digiday)

To make things worse, human beings are not the most reliable agents to differentiate fabricated news from a legitimate one, no matter how many suspicious bread crumbs are left behind. From tearjerking Pope Francis homilies, outrageous politically-inclined stories, to dubious Einstein quotes, our social media streams are full of fiction dressed up as facts. The overflow of content and the lack of adequate sanity filters created an ecosystem where many of us simply don’t have the time, the resources, or the disposition to fact-check everything.

Those more prone to rational thinking now rely on proxies for that purpose, such as historically reputable sources or trusted counterparts. However, a good portion of the world population simply — and often unconsciously — just follows instinct, ease of access, and volume of information to determine what they deem to be real. So if they hear similar news from several sources, that just becomes their reality.

It’s interesting to observe that in a day and age where we worship data, artificial intelligence, and machines that are becoming smarter, humankind seems to be going in the opposite direction, moving from the computer-driven information age to an era where misinformation is pervasive, and the wisdom-of-the-loudest is quickly replacing good judgment.

But the optimist in me believes that this current scenario is just part of a natural evolution. You can already see, on the fringes of this ecosystem, attempts to develop trust-building mechanisms. There’s also some encouraging but timid movement by online titans like Facebook and Google to help consumers to separate the wheat from the chaff. But things may need to get worse before they get better, the same way that the medieval period preceded Renaissance and the Age of Discovery. Hopefully, it won’t take centuries again to see the light at the end of the dark ages tunnel.

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Aaron Kim

Aaron Kim is the Head of Digital Social Collaboration at the Royal Bank of Canada, and led the efforts to bring social business and social collaboration to an organization of 79,000 employees. He’s also been a public speaker at several events across the globe, from the Web 2.0 Expo to JiveWorld, from Singapore to Barcelona. He has a passion for innovation and for making work smarter, more meaningful and rewarding to all. Born and raised in Brazil, to a Korean father and Japanese mother, he also volunteers in several diversity initiatives, inside and outside RBC. In the past, he worked as a consultant both at IBM Canada and Unisys Brazil, having played the roles of solutions architect, Basel II analyst, performance engineer, Java programmer, Unix administrator and environmental biologist. He holds an MBA from the University of Toronto, and a bachelor’s degree in Biology from the Universidade de São Paulo. He lives in Toronto, Canada, is married to Tania and have a son, Lucas.

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