More Tech Will Not Save Us from Disinformation
A Q&A with SRCCON:POWER speaker Britt Paris.
SRCCON:POWER is coming up so soon, on December 13 and 14. Before then, we’re previewing the speakers selected to talk at the event. Here’s our Q&A with scholar Britt Paris.
Britt Paris on Audiovisual Fakes and Tech’s Hidden Power Structures
Would you introduce yourself to our readers, please?
I am an information and media studies scholar currently working with Data & Society Research Institute to investigate audiovisual fakes as a complex sociotechnical phenomenon. Two things from this research that are of consequence to storytellers and newsroom technologists are 1) a rubric to better understand the nuances of how these fakes are produced and interpreted, and 2) better naming conventions that communicate these nuances. I hope to engage attendees in a discussion about how they might give a more accurate account of the consequences of this emerging phenomenon, while finding a balance between successfully communicating inherent risks and recycling what might be overblown hype.
We know that media manipulation can contribute to readers losing faith in journalism institutions, even longstanding, well-respected organizations and people. What would you say to journalists and newsroom folks, about how to conceptualize, navigate, and/or grapple with this loss of faith?
Identifying disinformation in its many forms is undoubtedly critical for newsrooms to maintain public faith in journalism institutions. There has been a great deal of money and energy pumped into technical fixes focusing on verifying audiovisual footage and identifying fakes, but in the end, proposed technical fixes are poised to make this serious problem worse. While verifying metadata and other contextual information is useful for newsrooms to identify individual fakes, at the macro scale, the wider push towards security, de-anonymized platforms, and verification in the name of ending audiovisual disinformation is largely a push towards more complete data on all users interacting with the system. While some see technical interventions as the only solution to the spread of audiovisual disinformation, it creates more holistic data on users to be wielded by the powerful and perpetuates the social problems that already exist. Solutions to the problems of disinformation must, at their core, look outward to social structures, practices, motivations, and cultural contexts if audiovisual disinformation and the host of other related problems with technology are to be addressed meaningfully.
What are a few high-level takeaways from your talk that you wish everyone could hear, even if they can’t be in the room at SRCCON:POWER?
- My analysis shows that the issue with audiovisual fakes is not that people cannot interpret technologically mediated evidence, but that technology has been built to interpret people for the powerful.
- Social media platforms have expressed difficulties at moderating text-based content at the huge scale of their user base fast enough to quell the tide of dangerous misinformation. At face value, these manipulated videos represent a sort of second-order disinformation that is at once more complex and more ingrained in a notion of social and individual interpretation that requires new solutions, even as we are still grappling with how to address text-based disinformation.
- Social media’s massive reach was never inevitable, nor is it impossible to scale back. The scale of social media platforms has been achieved from the collaboration and strategic decisions of people at platforms negotiating within existing social and technical infrastructures. While social media’s scale is evoked to stand in for the idea that social media is “too big to fail,” that is not true. We should highlight to the public of users the fact that technology is not neutral and those making decisions about building and deploying technology are often motivated by their own economic interests rather than the public interest.
Britt Paris is an information and media studies scholar focused on developing a sociotechnical understanding of how groups—from technologists to civil society organizations—understand, build, and use Internet infrastructure in accordance with their social values. She is currently a researcher at Data & Society focused on the sociotechnical practices of production and interpretation of manipulated audiovisual footage disseminated online.