The internet is an amazing creation. 

All of the world's knowledge is at your fingertips. Global leaders' thoughts flow from their fingers to your ears. Anyone can connect with virtually anyone else, and new opportunities for business and culture evolve almost daily.

But there's a downside.

Fake news influenced the 2016 US election, and is impacting many other elections globally, former Facebook chief security officer Alex Stamos said today at Disrupt conference in San Francisco.

It's also being used to tear our culture apart.

Why?

"Our technological capabilities outpace our ability to understand how people will abuse them," Stamos said.

Facebook is free. Google is free. Twitter is free ... and they're free because they're ad-supported. Free transfer of information, free ability to find needed knowledge, free ability to connect and socialize with almost anyone: these would have been unheard-of capabilities just a few short decades ago.

That's a really good thing for people all over the world.

"A small number of consumers, mostly in North America and Western Europe, finance the building of these platforms for the whole planet," Stamos said.

But the very systems that created these capabilities have been abused by people, organizations, and countries with ulterior motives. Some of them are as simple as making money. Others are as complex as hacking an election.

The biggest challenge?

Even today, after all that's gone on, we're no better off.

"The actual security of the election structure is no better," Stamos said on-stage. "Throwing any election into chaos is totally possible."

Those who are instigating the creation and spread of fake news are crafty. There's a lot of smuggling of the messages that they want to spread through other sources, Stamos said. The ultimate effect might be called "information laundering" through third parties.

This is really about "is really about driving wedges in American society," Stamos says.

What can be done?

Facebook is continuing to work on the problem, adding fact-checking and rating accuracy of news. Pages and people who continually spread articles that consistently turn up as fake will find their reach diminishing. But Facebook is also asking for government help in finding and prosecuting those who are financing and instigating fake news, particularly when they are foreign citizens.

Ultimately, all of us need to carefully research juicy stories that we're tempted to share on social ... and also realize that not everything that fits nicely into our worldview and paints our political enemies in a bad light is true.

Even if we'd really, really, really like it to be.

Published on: Sep 6, 2018