Fake news is not the problem. Artificial intelligence is.

By Neil Patrick

Today is a bad news day according to the news feed on my smartphone. Just like most other days then. It’s Tuesday 5th September 2017.

Like billions of other people, the news feed on my smartphone has been tailored for me by an algorithm. And my news has been written by junior hacks assembling computer generated information into ‘stories’. Doubtlessly they have been taught by their bosses that bad news and misery is the foundation of maximising readership.

These poor folk have no clue what they are writing about. They are simply painting by numbers.

I tweeted a while back in my #dearrobots series: ‘There’s a reason it’s called artificial intelligence – it’s not the same as real intelligence.’

Artificial intelligence is not just within the machines and IT that business deploys. It is penetrating the very brains of the people we need to trust for our news.

The algorithm which delivers my newsfeed has ‘learned’ what I like to read. Sort of. Because it has no ability to discern quality thought and content from junk.

And it helpfully put up the top three stories it thought would be of most interest to me.

So far so good.

The top three stories were:

Daily Telegraph: ‘Growth in UK services sector falls to 11-month low’

Reuters: ‘UK Car Sales are falling off a cliff’

Sky News: Lego sales drop: 1,400 jobs axed

Bingo! Yes these are all stories I want to know about.

But after this promising start, everything went downhill from there. Three news stories, yet every one was so ignorantly written that they not only told the wrong story, they would actually mislead 99% of readers into believing the wrong ‘facts’.

I am the last to criticise the integrity or quality of any of these three news sources, yet each one had provided me with what can only be described as fake news.

The first two ‘stories’ are not stories at all. They are simply the normal thing which happens every summer - people stop work for a couple of weeks and go on holiday.

This is why most business slumps in August

And if you work in a service business, it’s a very good idea to go on holiday in August, because unless you are a wedding photographer or ice cream vendor, chances are your clients have gone on holiday too and you might as well join them.

It’s nothing to do with Brexit, squeezed incomes, or business confidence. Yet according to the Telegraph writer, ‘This makes last month the weakest since September 2016’.

Wow. That’s almost exactly a full year…in fact the worst since the last time everyone went on their summer hols.

The Reuters writer has fallen into the same trap of not knowing about this mysterious thing called seasonality. In the UK, car sales have always bottomed out in July because new registration plates showing the vehicle registration year (half yearly since 2001) come out in August. They have done this since August 1962.

Of course new vehicle sales slump in July, because no-one in their right mind wants to buy a car which appears to be six months old when they drive it off the forecourt.

Yes the UK car retailing sector is headed for crisis as I have written about here. But sales have slumped in July every year forever for this simple and predictable reason.

This is not a story – it’s a clueless intern churning out words about a subject they care or know zilch about.

Which brings us onto the Lego story.

Everyone loves Lego, including me. So I was sorry to hear that they were in difficulty.

1,400 lay-offs is about 8% of their workforce.

Yet here’s the fascinating thing. Just six months ago, this appeared:

Lego is the world’s most powerful brand according to Forbes and Brand Finance:


Viewed through this lens, this story is huge. The world’s most powerful brand is laying off almost 1 in 10 of its workers because of falling sales in the US and Europe.

When we look at Lego's profit history, the significance of this becomes even more stark:

Perversely, the magnitude of this story is diminished, whereas the non-stories about normal seasonal fluctuations in business stats are blown up to cause alarm to anyone who cannot assess the merit of what they are reading.

Yup fake news is everywhere. But it is AI and low grade journalism which is creating it not some evil masterminds intent on global domination.

The truth is much simpler and less sensational (as it usually is). Artificial intelligence has assumed command of the brains and fingers of the people who write our daily news.

Sure, robots don’t get drunk like old school journos. They don’t hack phones. And they don’t snoop into people’s private lives.

But they can’t write a reliable piece of news either.