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The Growing Challenge of Social Media Disinformation

donsutherland1

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In the wake of the Trump Insurrection of January 6, major social media companies launched a sweeping effort to suspend or remove accounts responsible for inciting the violent attack and/or those advocating violence in the future. In turn, even as the U.S. Constitution’s First Amendment declares, “Congress shall make no law... abridging the freedom of speech,” critics asserted that private companies rushing to ensure that violent elements could not use their platforms to plot or incite violence were engaged in suppression of protected free speech. Philosophical debate over whether and where private entities can draw the line, whether more effective means exist for addressing social media disinformation e.g., expanded efforts to promote information literacy among the general public, will likely continue.

The controversy over protected speech notwithstanding, private social media companies were responding to a problem that had been increasing in scale. In part, that problem contributed to the gathering of radicalized elements who stormed the U.S. Capitol under the false premise of a “stolen election.” Hilmar Schmundt of Der Spiegel interviewed Oxford Internet Institute director Phil Howard who offered some ideas for addressing the problem. Excerpts:

DER SPIEGEL: You just presented a new report on disinformation online. Have we already seen peak disinformation? Do you expect things to quiet down once Trump is gone?

Howard: That would be nice, but it is unlikely. Our findings point in the opposite direction. Our
2020 report shows that cyber troop activity continues to increase around the world. This year, we found evidence of 81 countries using social media to spread computational propaganda and disinformation about politics. This has increased from last years’ report, where we identified 70 countries with cyber troop activity. Media firms have taken some steps against this, but the problem keeps getting bigger. Public announcements by Facebook and Twitter between January 2019 and December 2020 reveal that more than 317,000 accounts and pages have been removed by the platforms. Nonetheless, almost U.S. $10 million has still been spent on political advertisements by cyber troops operating around the world...

DER SPIEGEL: How can we protect democracy from this globalized disinformation industry?

Howard: Any company that is listed on the New York Stock Exchange must provide a filing to the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) with about details of the company. Why not adopt that system for social media companies that are in the business of running open public platforms for communication? Each social media company should provide some kind of accounting statement about how it deals with misuse, with reporting hate speech, with fact checking and jury systems and so on. This system of transparency and accountability works for the stock markets, why shouldn’t it work in the social media realm? It would not be an instance of overregulation, but it would help a functioning, open, transparent market of ideas.
 
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donsutherland1

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Leading up to and following the 2020 U.S. Presidential election there was evidence of “misinformation superspreaders.” On November 23, 2020, The New York Times reported:

The voter fraud claims have continued to gather steam in recent weeks, thanks in large part to prominent accounts. A look at a four-week period starting in mid-October shows that President Trump and the top 25 superspreaders of voter fraud misinformation accounted for 28.6 percent of the interactions people had with that content, according to an analysis by Avaaz...

In order to find the superspreaders, Avaaz compiled a list of 95,546 Facebook posts that included narratives about voter fraud. Those posts were liked, shared or commented on nearly 60 million times by people on Facebook.

Avaaz found that just 33 of the 95,546 posts were responsible for over 13 million of those interactions. Those 33 posts had created a narrative that would go on to shape what millions of people thought about the legitimacy of the U.S. elections.


Among the misinformation superspreaders identified were talk radio hosts Dan Bongino and Mark Levin and social media personalities Diamond and Silk.

Avaaz, which promotes online activism, further revealed:

We identified 119 ‘repeat misinformers’ -- pages that we found have shared misinformation content at least three times, which was fact-checked by one of Facebook’s fact-checking partners in the US over the last year. Together, these pages generated an estimated 5.2 billion views in a year.

The hypothesis concerning the existence of misinformation superspreaders was put to a test following the Trump Insurrection, the first self-coup attempt in American history, of January 6, 2021. Following the storming of the U.S. Capitol that claimed the life of a U.S. Capitol police officer and left dozens of other police officers injured, the major social media platforms moved aggressively to disrupt the communications of those who incited the violence or otherwise pushed the “Big Lie” of a ”stolen election” that inspired it.

This was a targeted effort. If the hypothesis of misinformation superspreaders cited above was valid, that targeted move should have reduced the incidence of election-related misinformation.

The initial evidence is now in. The Washington Post reported:

Online misinformation about election fraud plunged 73 percent after several social media sites suspended President Trump and key allies last week, research firm Zignal Labs has found, underscoring the power of tech companies to limit the falsehoods poisoning public debate when they act aggressively.

The new research by the San Francisco-based analytics firm reported that conversations about election fraud dropped from 2.5 million mentions to 688,000 mentions across several social media sites in the week after Trump was banned from Twitter.


The initial data affirm that the hypothesis concerning the existence of misinformation superspreaders was valid. The efforts undertaken by the major social media companies was a supply-side initiative—it was aimed at cutting the supply of misinformation that fueled the insurrection and fostered the risk of additional follow-up violence.

The social media companies’ response was not a demand-side initiative. Reducing the demand for misinformation will require bolstering the general public’s information literacy skills, among other things.
 

donsutherland1

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Excessive exposure to misinformation can lead to flawed reasoning even when the facts are obvious and evident. In a story published today, The New York Times offered an illustration of this phenomenon. The newspaper reported:

In one of the ultimate don’t-believe-your-eyes moments of the Trump era, these Republicans have retreated to the ranks of misinformation, claiming it was Black Lives Matter protesters and far-left groups like Antifa who stormed the Capitol — in spite of the pro-Trump flags and QAnon symbology in the crowd. Others have argued that the attack was no worse than the rioting and looting in cities during the Black Lives Matter movement, often exaggerating the unrest last summer while minimizing a mob’s attempt to overturn an election.

The shift is revealing about how conspiracy theories, deflection and political incentives play off one another in Mr. Trump’s G.O.P. For a brief time, Republican officials seemed perhaps open to grappling with what their party’s leader had wrought — violence in the name of their Electoral College fight. But any window of reflection now seems to be closing as Republicans try to pass blame and to compare last summer’s lawlessness, which was condemned by Democrats, to an attack on Congress, which was inspired by Mr. Trump.


This illustration of a turn toward misinformation, even when the facts are evident, suggests that even when the supply and demand for misinformation are reduced, the adverse effects associated with misinformation will linger. There will remain a hangover from the misinformation overdose of recent years. Whether or not the impact of past reliance on misinformation has permanently or temporarily flawed the reasoning of its heaviest users remains to be seen.
 
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