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Addressing the Root Causes of Disinformation

  • Stop the Steal was an idea hatched by Roger Stone in 2016, primarily to generate donations.

  • Stop the Steal was re-hatched in November 2020 by the group Women for America First.

  • A Stop the Steal group on Facebook gained more than 320,000 members in less than 22 hours and eventually Facebook removed the group.

  • Stop the Steal was the battle cry in the violent storming of the US Capitol on January 6, 2021.

Stop the Steal was a successful disinformation campaign. Social media disinformation is especially powerful and dangerous because of its incredible reach. In order to understand what causes disinformation and its corrosive effect on society, we need to look at the platforms which function as both the distribution and amplification systems. Social media companies — particularly Facebook — profit from an "attention economy." In simplistic terms:  the longer people stay on Facebook, the more advertising is viewed, the more revenue made by Facebook.  And the more of our data the platform collects about us, our likes, our behaviors. Yes, that's right. Our data. (hold that thought)

In this excerpt from her 2017 TED Talk, We're building a dystopia just to make people click on ads, techno-sociologist, Zeynep Tufekci, describes how the system works.

The personalized content feed doesn't just deliver advertising. In fact, most of what we see are the posts and shares from the people and groups in our networks. The only "middleman" or gatekeeper is the algorithm that generates the endless newsfeed, which is personalized and optimized for every single one of our attention patterns.  The self-teaching artificial intelligence does not care about the truth, its mission is to keep us on Facebook longer, and keep us clicking. Recently, the influence of disinformation has been most visible in politics and the global Covid pandemic.

In 2010, Eli Pariser, digital activist and former Executive Director of MoveOn, was disturbed when he noticed how different his own Facebook feed was from that of his friends, despite their having many friends in common. He created the term "filter bubbles" to describe what he saw happening. Individuals are each fed our own personalized stream of information. This results in a ubiquitous state of social isolation, where we are "alone together" in our networks.

That was more than ten years ago and very little about the governance of social media companies has changed since then. A few states —California, Illinois and New York— have passed laws related to data privacy. At the Federal level, there has been a lack of clarity, talent and the will to tackle address the issue. During the Trump years, the United States —home to the social media giants— bullied back against France's attempts to control the social economy through a data tax. Our country has not been a willing partner in global efforts to address the social media industry.

 

The primary form of governance over social media companies is, by default, self-regulation. The same (mostly) young men that built the platforms with a "move fast and break things" mantra have been the only ones in charge of regulating the behemoths they've created. The much publicized "Oversight Board" for Facebook" is a Facebook initiative. One difference is that the "speed to market" philosophy that has guided Facebook has not been the case for the Oversight Board, which started development in 2018, and is just now, in January 2021 hearing its first cases. They did not move fast on this initiative and we have yet to see whether it will make a dent.

How can concerned people make a difference?

As constituents, we need to demand that our elected officials at the state and Federal level to prioritize social media platform accountability. The artificial intelligence is getting smarter by the second, and our current legislation is decades old and not written to address the realities of social platforms.

 

In order to advocate, we don't need to understand what makes the algorithm tick, even the engineers have lost track as the artificial intelligence is self-teaching.  We need to know just enough to demand that our legislators prioritize platform accountability. If our legislators don't understand the issue, which most do not, it is their responsibility to hire staffers who can translate. A talent pool could be shared across legislators.

 

While some of the recent legislative focus has been on anti-trust—and this is certainly an angle anti-trust does not get to the root cause. As Shoshanna Zuboff says so clearly in her recent article, The Knowledge Coup, we need to focus legislation and standards on the systems that extract our private data as the raw materials for generating revenue. We need a new generation of legislation—laws and standards that are built to govern digital economies. There are brilliant minds at work developing policies and design proposals that address the dynamics of social media and the underlying systems. For comprehensive policy recommendations refer to the Policy Framework Report developed by the Working Group on Infodemics, an international group of technologists, journalists, scholars and legal experts.

 

Concerned but not sure where to start?

The following are resources that will help you better understand these issues. A good place to start is with The Social Dilemma, a docu-drama that was released in August 2020 and available on Netflix.

 

Watch The Social Dilemma with friends and family and talk about it. If your children are familiar with social media, watch it with them. Ask your elected officials to watch it if they haven't already. The Social Dilemma provides the clearest picture to date of the issue in an accessible format.

Familiarize yourself with the Center for Humane Technology and join their mailing list.  Among the many resources on the site, here are a few highlights:

  • Ledger of Harms - this working document describes the often "invisible" harms that the attention-economy driven social media platforms are causing to individuals and society. 

  • For Policy Makers - this is a section of the website that addresses policy issues. This section includes podcast episodes and articles. 

To understand the very real threat that runaway disinformation has on democracy, watch the Frontline documentary, A Thousand Cuts.  This is a documentary that features Maria Ressa, the founder of the online social news network, Rappler, the social news network based in the Philippines, where Facebook has near 100% penetration. The story of Ressa and Rappler show the very real threats to freedom of the press that we all face in a post-truth social media driven world.

And finally, stay in touch. We are a network of people who care about where social media has already taken us and we'll be working to tell our legislators to wake up, pay attention and take action.