'Fake news', my financier friend sipping his favourite fine malt in one of Edinburgh New Town's swanky wine bars, exclaimed without warning. He was commenting on the online phenomenon that appeared to take off with the visit to Scotland by a certain Mr Trump (remember him: 'call me the Donald
You may recall this particular well-heeled pal. He's the same individual who said of all the hype surrounding cryptocurrencies and his personal involvement: 'what was I thinking!?' We were discussing how virtually impossible it is nowadays to believe anything one reads on the internet. And how to avoid a digital slip of the tongue when conversing on innumerable social media platforms or conducting daily business online. He's right to be concerned. We all should be.
Surely the most pressing task of the Scottish Government's soon-to-be-installed senior role of chief data officer, in this era of online and mobile world, is just how to help wider society cope with the leakage. They must stem an endless flow of sensitive information and misplaced words from our internet-facing digital assets, where there's nothing more precious and powerful than language. It's a tough ask.
MIT Technology Review
reports that in an online world saturated in content, increasing amounts of such data are being hoovered up, reused and regularly misused. But you might be somewhat surprised to learn that this is not necessarily carried out by scammers. MIT warns of an exponential rise of what's known as artificial intelligence (AI) 'large language models' (LLMs) and within them GPTs ('Generative Pre-Trained Transformers'). Heard of these tech tongue twisters? Probably not.
It comes as a perfect economic storm is brewing: with a cost of living crisis and soaring inflation. McKinsey consultants report that marketing budgets are being slashed, and BT points to significant numbers of firms attempting to make the 'digital pivot' suffering a confidence gap. It leaves under-stress individuals, worried about their jobs and businesses, wide open to all manner of big corporation-backed creative marketing, sales pitches, so-called infotainment and innumerable social media platforms. All increasingly using AI tools backed up by analytics and monetisation calculators. Automated, of course.
Significant numbers utilise GPTs to mine troves of freely available human-created text. Compiled in huge data sets, they scoop up our key words from posts, emails and reports. You name it: full sentences and more borrowed and reconstructed. Read mass manipulation and hyperbole online. This is often done so convincingly that they trick us into thinking they're still from a sentient, rather than synthetic, source.
By then, it's realised that those leaked words might have been far better not written. Too late. Even digitised government annual reports can become ensnared. UK Revenue and Customs, the Home Office and DWP each concede a lack of 'data protection' and 'exploitation (of) information'. The latest LLM iteration, GPT-4, is described as the most advanced 'autoaggressive' text program to date. It's a reported 500 times larger and more powerful than the third version and is an AI gamechanger.
That's not all. There's emotion-sensing AI that builds and uses digital systems to process, analyse and interpret our data. Some AI engines can actually 'see' and read our emotional state and act on it. Think Alexa, monitoring us 24/7.
It all makes it even more difficult to believe what one reads online and to untangle what is real and verified, and what is 'fake news'. The phrase entered the Oxford English Dictionary
three years ago. It is defined as 'news conveying or incorporating false, fabricated or deliberately misleading information'. Since then, it's been memed to death, especially by a certain ex-US President whose alleged inflating in value of his Scottish golf resorts to avoid paying tax is an issue that just refuses to go away. Forbes news reports that Trump's Scottish resorts have lost at least $100 million.
This all strengthens the argument of an unbridled and out-of-control AI online. Just who, or what, is in charge? Yet the basic tenets of protecting precious data online haven't really changed. Going digital is not an 'add on' or 'nice to have' but a necessity. Only by tight management can a safe and scalable robust safeguarding of one's digital assets be secured. Whether it's a bank account or credit card transaction to ordering a widget on eBay, even a single coffee and bun can be bought by a card.
There have been calls for Scotland to appoint a 'misinformation commissioner' to tackle head-on fake news, conspiracy theories and foreign attempts to influence democracy. The SNP's MP and spokesman for defence at Westminster, Stewart McDonald, has published a paper setting out how disinformation has become more sophisticated, with young people especially vulnerable to such activity on social media. A series of recommendations include appointing said commissioner, hosting a 'clean information' summit, and forming a youth information initiative.
Young Scot is already onto this. It highlighted on Facebook that fake news or misinformation can happen to anyone, which makes figuring out what is fact or fiction difficult. In a fact sheet, the organisation urges one to check where a news item has come through, especially if it's something sent on social media. Is the particular site trustworthy? It also recommends looking at the 'about us' section of the website for more information. If something has been shared, check if it's a real person sharing it, check the account image, biography and past posts. This can all help identify what's known as a '(ro)bot' account or fake persona. Other things to look out for are spelling mistakes and grammatical errors. Beware misleading or exaggerated headlines and read beyond the headline.
My malt-quaffing financier friend thinks the digital genie is out of the bottle on fake news and the like. Best advice I can give is, at all times, be inquisitive, query sources and take nothing at face value. Be extra careful what you say online! And rest assured, this piece of prose has been written by a real person. Honest...
Former Reuters, Sunday Times, The Scotsman and Glasgow Herald business and finance correspondent, Bill Magee is a columnist writing tech-based articles for Daily Business, Institute of Directors, Edinburgh Chamber and occasionally The Times' 'Thunderer'