Trust, truth and public confidence are at risk from the expansion of fake news and deep fakes

Idea 1: Establish an independent unit to explore ways for the public sector to support New Zealanders with truth and authenticity online.

Truth is harder than ever to decipher, and mistruth has been weaponised and operationalised at both a state and community scale. In this environment how can the public sector support the public better to support public values, public confidence and social cohesion?

Within New Zealand’s current system of government, the search and determination of the truth has been largely reserved to the judiciary. The justice system has long been the agent of truth, but Royal Commissions and the judicial system are reactive and have high costs of entry for users that make them  unsuitable to support people being hit by social media every second.

The public sector could commission a cross sector collaboration, working to the Justice Ministry (to avoid the perception of politics) to investigate options for how to better support New Zealanders to navigate truth in the era of fake news. It is critical to start as soon as possible, so that New Zealand is potentially in a position to have a well supported general public (or at least means to support the general public) prior to the next election, which will be rife with deep fakes that will create chaos for public dialogue and civility. Whilst our intelligence agencies have traditionally provided a degree of protection against threats of this nature, the highly permeable, individual worlds created by social media suggest that a more community based method will be required to ensure these intelligence capabilities can continue to meet the higher order threats to New Zealand's security.

The Privacy Commissioner has an important high trust role in protecting people and would be a useful alternative or partner for investigating this matter.

Idea 2: A programme to explicitly drive public trust in the public sector
To increase and sustain public trust, the public sector needs to be more accessible, transparent, responsive to and engaged with the people and whanau we serve.

Generating trust is difficult and complex due to the collective experiences and personal nature of the relationships  trust is built from. A way to focus and shape initiatives to be trust building in these relationships is to have the service designer or owner ask  four simple and user-centred questions. These help to build systems to be trustworthy, and therefore capable of being trusted.

  • How would you audit the process and decisions?
  • How would an end user appeal a decision?
  • How would you know whether this action/process is having a positive or negative impact?
  • What does the public and the participant need for you to be considered trustworthy?

Almost anything government does needs to have a solid, demonstrable answer for all of these questions. Mapping the ‘user journey’ for the first three questions reveals the need for both real time and perpetual decision capture, traceability of authority (i.e legislation, delegation or policy) in making a decision; and, discoverability and communication of decisions to end users. If the service designer/owner understands and designs an optimum user experience for auditing and appealing the decisions or outcomes of the work, then it is likely the process or action will build and sustain trust. These questions represent best practice for creating services, but it is the third question that is unique to and critical for the public sector to be effective – it is vital  to ask people what would make a relationship with an agency trustworthy, rather than just asking for (or demanding) trust? Becoming conscious of trust as a vital dimension of relationships and processes is vital to the work of government. Using a user centered design tool like this simple set of questions can help define this trust dimension and in the aggregate help sustain the record trust vested in the public service by New Zealanders.

A user-centred approach would help in the design for how to be seen as trustworthy by the people and communities that need and rely on government every day, noting that this will likely be different for different agencies and public sector functions.
Modern government is complex in any dimension, be it scale, number of services or processes followed. As the public sector seeks to embrace tools like AI to deliver outcomes and greater value to taxpayers it is important to understand how these technologies interact with the instituitions of state. In this respect New Zealand would be better served by an informed democracy than a data driven government.

In aiming for an informed democracy the explainability and transparency of a decision are key building blocks. Some people who are in the AI or data analytics industries would respond that explainability is too hard, or would compromise the Intellectual Property of the algorithm owner or Privacy of participants in the training set and the work is only a contributing factor to a decision and not the decision itself. However the explainability and transparency of these components is vital to understanding issues of bias, exception and application within these decisionmaking processes. In short it is vital that the advice and actions of the public service derived from these digital tools is able to be clearly seen and explained.

Capturing and assuring the explainability of a decision or action taken by the public service is critical for the ability to audit, appeal, and maintain the integrity of our public institutions. It is also critical for ensuring the actions and decisions are lawful, permitted, and correctly executed. As such, it is important to ensure and regularly test the end-to-end explainability and capture of that information for the work done in the public sector, especially where it relates to anything that directly impacts people — like service delivery, taxation, justice, regulation, or penalties.
To be the trusted advisor to an informed democracy the public sector has ALWAYS been required to provide explainability in administrative decision-making. Administrative law principles require that decision-makers only make decisions that are within their delegated power, only take into account relevant evidence, and provide their decision together with reasons for the decision and avenue for appeal. The public sector is uniquely experienced and obligated in this respect.

Why the contribution is important

Public sectors globally are struggling to shift from simply seeking permission (or social licence), to actually operating in a more trustworthy way, sustained consent environment. This important work to transform the public sector to operate in a more trustworthy way would result in open, engaged, auditable and fair government for the digital age, and a genuine increase in public trust of public institutions. This would position government capabilities as trusted and adaptive foundations of New Zealand’s future.

Governments and public sectors the world over are facing an impending trust and confidence crisis, and must carefully and collaboratively engage on the question of what structures, processes, oversight and forms of transparency and public scrutiny would be considered trustworthy by the public today. Otherwise, public institutions will lose trust, as will the democratic outcomes, social and economic services, policies and laws that they uphold.

A secondary problem is the growing reach and sophistication of fake news and deep fake technologies, in a context of declining trust in information institutions (such as news media, science, academia and public sectors). People tend to believe what they see and are grappling with the way computers can convey misleading information. Deep fake technology can automate the creation of believable videos of anyone saying anything - no matter how offensive or outrageous. We are about to enter a very dark age where individuals, governments and communities are increasingly and proactively “gamed” or “played” en masse for profit, crime, sabotage or even just for fun. Beyond the authenticity of information, facts, fiction and fakes coexist online, and citizens are increasingly struggling to navigate truth. On one hand, one person’s truth is another’s lie, but there are possibly some better ways to help support citizens and communities to navigate truth in the 21st century, and to help populate the public domain with robust and trustworthy data and facts, where and when they exist. 

We can consider misinformation and the dissemination thereof, as two problems:

“At a US Senate intelligence committee hearing in May last year, the Republican senator Marco Rubio warned that deepfakes would be used in “the next wave of attacks against America and western democracies”. Rubio imagined a scenario in which a provocative clip could go viral on the eve of an election, before analysts were able to determine it was a fake.

“Democracies appear to be gravely threatened by the speed at which disinformation can be created and spread via social media, where the incentive to share the most sensationalist content outweighs the incentive to perform the tiresome work of verification” (Parkin, 2019).

The New Zealand Law Society commissioned a report into deepfakes in 2019, which has a range of recommendations worth considering but it also makes the point that the main threat is from international and machine/AI sources, so domestic laws will not provide much protection.

The issues of truth and trust are integral to the relationship between government and citizens, and as seen from developments in other democracies, and the threats from digital deep fakes, social media misinformation campaigns and similar technologies has become a realised and growing danger. In the past we have relied upon independent media institutions and broadcasting controls to identify and mitigate these risks but with the disruption and bypassing of these channels through self-reinforcing social media echo chambers online, combined with exponential growth in misinformation, it is clear that the implications for future elections, public messaging, public policy and social cohesion are potentially dire. The question for government is what role, if any, should the public sector or the judiciary play in trying to support citizens to navigate these treacherous waters? 

It is critical to start this work as soon as possible, so that New Zealand is in a position to have a well supported general public (or at least means to support the general public) prior to the next election, which will likely be rife with deep fakes that will create chaos for public dialogue, civility and perceived electoral integrity. Such misinformation also creates profound security threats, and whilst our intelligence agencies have traditionally provided a degree of protection against such threats, the highly permeable, borderless and individual worlds created by social media suggest that partnership with more community based methods will be required to ensure the sector can continue to meet the challenge of higher order threats to New Zealand's security.

As we enter the age of Artificial Intelligence, public sectors should also be planning what an augmented public sector looks like, one that keeps values, trust and accountability at the heart of what we do, whilst using machines to support better responsiveness, modelling, service delivery and to maintain diligent and proactive protection of the people and communities we serve. The great but often misunderstood opportunity of AI is to better humanise government services. As it stands the incremental and iterative implementations of most AI projects is more likely to deliver a more inhuman and mechanised public services. Without strong ethical service frameworks that are measured in accordance to the Wellness Framework, New Zealand risks missing the opportunity to design a modern public service that gets the best of humans and machines working together for the best public outcomes.

by Pia on October 18, 2021 at 04:03PM

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