Disinformation: A Threat to Our Civic Future
Disinformation and misinformation pose a complex, insidious risk to our democratic institutions. It’s impossible to maintain a well-functioning democratic society without educated voters and a shared fact base. As election disinformation and manipulation flourish in the digital age, what can we do about these threats?
Election Disruption and Misinformation Are Not New
While this issue has existed for centuries, we have clear evidence that something is profoundly broken in America’s information ecosystem today. There’s a mass proliferation of misinformation (unintentionally inaccurate information) as well as purposeful disinformation (willfully distorted information). And we don’t just hear about this on the news, but we see it for ourselves on our own social media channels and in conversations with families, friends, and neighbors.
The Attention Economy Drives Misinformation
The challenge of mis-and disinformation isn’t just a function of insufficient laws or a lack of funding. These are problems deeply embedded in human psychology. The attention economy incentivizes and amplifies sensationalism, myths, and outright lies. As our politics have become more tribal, people are more likely to embrace information aligned with their worldview, regardless of accuracy. These divisions are then exacerbated by social media platforms that must constantly grow user engagement to maximize earnings, which often means amplifying conflict and outrage.
BFA Webinar Discusses What Business Can Do
Given the scope of the challenge, Business for America, in partnership with the National Election Defense Coalition, hosted a webinar on October 29th to explore why it matters to the business community and what they can do about it. The webinar featured perspectives from individuals with backgrounds in business, government, civil rights, Silicon Valley, social justice, and philanthropy.
The core question we asked: What can we do as businesses, advocates, and individuals do to reduce the scope and impact of mis- and disinformation, particularly as they relate to our elections?
Larry Norden, Director of Election Reform, Brennan Center for Justice:
There are three specific threats that disinformation poses to election security and integrity: 1. Election officials have to shift time to combat mis- and disinformation, and away from doing their jobs securing elections; 2. Election officials have come to fear for their own personal safety which is shrinking the pool of qualified people willing to serve as an election official; and 3. Unfortunately, many people who subscribe to disinformation and conspiracy theories are now running for — and winning — office.
David Jay, Chief Mobilization Officer, Center for Humane Technology
Content is most effective if it creates moral outrage about a political topic regarding some group that’s considered the ’other.’ Moral outrage is one of the most effective strategies for getting attention. Social media companies are rewarded monetarily for the maximum amplification of content and eyeballs, regardless of its veracity. If we want to address the issues of dis- and misinformation, we need to shift those incentives on a fundamental and structural level.
Craig Newmark, Founder, Craig Newmark Philanthropies
On a weekly basis, Facebook publishes a list of the worst super spreaders of disinformation. Facebook could do more and actually take concrete steps to limit the capacity of these entities/people to distribute their content. The same thing is true of Twitter. The first thing Washington (Congress and the White House) may need to do is to better define which regulatory agencies should hold the responsibility to take action to counter the pandemic of disinformation.
Sarah Bonk, Founder, Business for America
A Churchill quote is appropriate here, that “a lie gets halfway around the world before the truth has a chance to get its pants on.” We have three simple ideas for businesses and how they can support truthful information — especially around our elections. 1) Be a purveyor of trusted news to your employees; 2) Consider where your advertising dollars show up; and 3) Identify opportunities where your company is uniquely positioned to address the quality of information distribution and discourse.
Ginny Badanes, Director of Strategic Projects, Cybersecurity, & Democracy, Microsoft
Really, the best end solution to disinformation is good, accurate information. But that doesn’t work if it’s not trusted. And so what can we all collaboratively do to not just raise the exposure of accurate information, but what can be done to put that in a trusted frame where people will believe what they’re reading?
Justin Talbot Zorn, Senior Advisor, National Election Defense Coalition
Even though the political discourse is so polarized, I think there are some openings potentially for some surprising developments in this space. Transparency of algorithms can be one way forward, but there are other ways that we may not yet have discovered. I think we’re gonna see more of these possibilities opening up, hopefully, in the future.