• The Problem of Misinformation, Bad Bots and Online Trolls, Especially during the Coronavirus Crisis

    March 18, 2020 | Blog | Dr Mark van Rijmenam
  • In 2020, the internet has turned out to have become a different place than it was originally intended. We can safely say that the web is under siege. One of the world’s greatest inventions is fundamentally broken.

    A relevant example of this is the famous saying “On the internet, nobody knows if you are a dog”. The consequence of it is that as a result of this openness, anonymity and lack of accountability is that we now live in a world where fake (news) is the new normal, trolls and bad bots control the internet, and online accountability is non-existent. As a result, online trust is degrading and in a society where trust is gone, anarchy could follow.

    Misinformation Spreads Like a Virus

    On the internet, misinformation, bots and trolls are dominating the online (political) discourse. Any major event, whether global or local, will see misinformation popping up. The recent Coronavirus epidemic saw a flood of misinformation spread over the internet like the virus itself. Corona misinformation is dangerous, it can actually kill people, so we should be careful before we share an article or message on WhatsApp. For a while, BuzzFeed kept a list of some of the Coronavirus hoaxes that were spread in the first weeks of the epidemic, including a false suggestion that the virus was lab-engineered as a kind of bioweapon.

    Unfortunately, misinformation is nothing new and the examples of the 2016 Presidential campaign in the US and the Brexit campaign no longer require any explanation. Misinformation is a threat to the internet and as such to our society. In 2019, large scale, intentional disinformation campaigns occurred in over 48 countries (Oxford Internet Institute).

    Bad Bots and Online Trolls Influence Online Discourse

    In addition, bad bots currently account for 20% of all internet traffic and they are continuously evolving and expanding. It has become easier and financially feasible to hire an army of bots to bring damage to your commercial competitor, political opponent or any player on the internet. Reviews are fake, followers on social media are fake and ad clicks are fake. Click farms cost advertisers $51 million per day / $18.6 billion per year – which is ​expected to increase to $44 billion per year by 2022.

    Then there is online trolling, which is defined as ‘creating disagreement on the internet by starting arguments or upsetting people through the placement of inflammatory or off-topic messages in an online community’. In short, a troll on social media is someone (or something) who deliberately says something controversial to feed latent emotions or thoughts to ignite anger and frustration for the purpose of influencing specific political or commercial issues. During the net neutrality debate in the USA in 2017, over a million comments were likely fake, directly influencing the debate. Anyone can employ bots or trolls nowadays. Even commercial companies are hiring virtual influencers to change the behaviour of (future) customers. It seems fake has become more powerful on the internet than integrity and truth.

    Fake News is a Threat to our Democracy

    As such, fake (news) has become one of the greatest threats to democracy and free debate. Unfortunately, for many, fake news is not being perceived as a problem at all as it is not affecting them personally or because they feel it is a necessary evil to push certain issues. Above all, there is disagreement about what constitutes as fake news and by who, how big the problem is and what to do about it.

    To make matters worse, ‘ordinary’ fake news is dangerous. It has the potential to influence online (political) discourse. AI-powered fake news, however, such as deep fakes, will be infinitely more dangerous as it becomes increasingly difficult to tell the difference between what is fake and what is real.

    The cause of all these problems lies in how the internet was developed. When the internet was created, the original creators did a lot of things really well. They created standards such as TCP/IP, DNS, HTTP, etc. However, unfortunately, they also forgot two important standards: a decentralised self-sovereign identity protocol to use your offline identity online and a decentralised reputation protocol, to be reputable and accountable online, even when you are anonymous. These crucial protocols were never conceptualized twenty odd years ago because the initial concept was that only trusted actors would have access to the network.

    We Need to Bring Accountability to the Web

    As a result, we are now in a situation where there are no repercussions for your online actions. Anyone can write anything about anyone, pretty much without any consequences (Facebook even acknowledges that they will not remove false political advertisements). The anonymity of the internet has resulted in a web where fake (news), bad bots and trolls are very lucrative. On the other hand, a fully exposed society with no privacy as created in China, using the social credit score, does not seem to be the ideal global solution either, due to the lack of privacy and complete government surveillance.

    We believe that the way to fix this is to bring accountability to the internet. This means that anyone can still say anything online, but your words will have consequences, just as they do in the real world. However, accountability should not take away anonymity and privacy. It is vital that internet users can speak freely without having to worry about being arrested. In 2019, 250 journalists were jailed for their reporting work, especially in non-democratic countries.

    Mavin: Fighting Fake News, Bad Bots and Online Trolls

    That is why we are building Mavin – an independent foundation to bring (anonymous) accountability to the web. Our mission is to reward honest, authentic, fact-based and high-quality content. As well as to discredit and expose fake news, bad bots and trolls intended to wrongly inform its audience for whatever purpose. We bring accountability to the web but allow internet users to remain anonymous.

    Why are we called Mavin? A mavin is “a trusted expert in a particular field, who seeks to pass timely and relevant knowledge on to others in a respective field”. As such, we invite all content creators and their critics around the globe to share their expertise in a timely, relevant and above all truthful, unbiased and honest way. We seek to create an environment in which facts remain facts and in which trust in media and content will return. It is our objective to expose and/or ban fake news, bad bots and trolls, not by left- or right-wing polarisation but by the inclusive and objective Mavin Movement.

    The Mavin Movement is about authors, academics, journalists, editors, bloggers as well as expert critics, reviewers and commenters coming together to bring accountability to the web. Combined with AI, Mavin will allow users to filter the good from the bad, the real from the fake. This will bring accountability and responsibility to the web, through collective reputation building. Accessible to all, tokenised and rewarding.

    Anonymous Accountability

    On the Mavin platform, authors of content, as well as reviewers, are held accountable while still warranting privacy through a safe environment in which personal data will not be exposed. This anonymous accountability will protect and improve the right to freedom of speech. Users’ reputation will be immutable, traceable and verifiable.

    The vision of Mavin is to introduce an immutable reputation to the internet, and with that, we bring accountability to the web while allowing people to still publish or comment anonymously. As such, building on my introduction, with Mavin, in the future, the saying goes: “On the internet, nobody knows if you are a dog, but at least you know if it is a good or bad dog.”

    We need all the help we can get to fix the internet and fight misinformation, especially now. Therefore, if our vision appeals to you, please reach out to us at info@mavin.org.

    Image: igorstevanovic/Shutterstock

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