Five Ways to Rescue Truth on Social Media

MIT Summit panelists remind us that “truth is not the enemy.”

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By Paula Klein

The truth is under attack. Increasingly, social media is being used to obfuscate the truth by amplifying false ideas faster and farther than traditional media, according to research by Sinan Aral, Director of the MIT Initiative on the Digital Economy.

Moderating a panel discussion on Rescuing Truth, at the MIT Social Media Summit on April 22, Aral said that targeting and personalizing news feeds make it difficult to uncover the source of false news online and for consumers to discern fact from fiction. Platforms and their advertisers reap the financial rewards of this online activity. Panelists offered several solutions to these problems during the session.

Step 1: Platforms must admit the problem of fake news proliferation and not treat all data equally. Lies and fiction must be identified and purged algorithmically.

Maria Ressa, CEO and outspoken journalist at the Philippine news organization, Rappler, said that “the [Philippine] government has used social media to its advantage enabling insidious manipulation” of facts on social platforms.

Rappler CEO, Maria Ressa

Rappler has documented government disinformation — which Ressa defines as deliberate, calculated, false news campaigns versus more benign and unintended misinformation. She said falsities propagated online, especially on Facebook, “infect the information ecosystem with lies that cause users to become impervious to facts. Users don’t see or feel it, but society has to call out disinformation for what it is.”

Step 2. Hold platforms accountable for designs that amplify lies.

Ressa’s fellow journalist on the panel, Ali Velshi, host and NBC business correspondent, explained that it is the role of journalists to bear witness to news and to hold power accountable. “But if that power is working to discredit you, over time, that effort grows and creates distrust of the media. It doesn’t matter what facts you have, or what evidence; the media has been painted with the same brush as lies, and we can never get to the real, important discussions” that democracies need to have.

Velshi encourages “healthy debate; there are many sides to a story. We need to figure out how to amplify pluralism.” Facts are not the enemy, he said, unreliability, dishonesty, and falsity are the enemies of democracy.

Step 3. Stop demonizing the media and rebuild trust.

Offering another perspective, Clint Watts, Distinguished Research Fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute, draws on his experience with counter-terrorism and cyberwarfare to understand social media’s dynamics. He said that some rating systems and digital verification tools, such as blockchain, could help to authenticate video and audio streams now flooding social media.

Generally, however, policing content with fact checking or warning labels doesn’t work because false content “can be created faster online than it can be policed.” Additionally, telling people what not to say undermines basic democratic ideals. As in cybersecurity, Watts recommends focusing on the most prolific offenders of false speech. “It usually comes down to a small network of big offenders. We know about them and [enforcement] needs to focus there for maximum impact.”

Step 4. Focus on the most prolific disinformation offenders; identify a small network of big offenses and focus there for impact.

Despite the complexities social media poses, Camille François, Chief Innovation Officer, at Graphika, is hopeful that a combination of regulatory and public pressure will curb abuse. “We must continue to shine a light on these networks of offenders,” she said.

And François sees incremental progress. “When fake news concerns were raised five years ago, no one in Silicon Valley cared.” More recently, however, pressure on platform companies to create rules, share data, and investigate fake accounts is being heeded to a small extent. “We live in a new reality. It still isn’t perfect, we want more, but it proves that public pressure can work. We’re at a pivotal moment” to effect change, François said.

Step 5: Invest in new designs… imagine new ways of hosting social media. Focus on who has access to data and use content interventions to nudge people toward better awareness.

FIVE WAYS TO RESCUE THE TRUTH ON SOCIAL MEDIA

1. Platforms must admit the problem of fake news proliferation and not treat all data equally. Lies and fiction must be identified and purged algorithmically.

2. Hold platforms accountable for designs that amplify lies.

3. Stop demonizing the media and rebuild trust.

4. Focus on the most prolific disinformation offenders; identify a small network of big offenses and focus there for impact.

5. Invest in new designs… imagine new ways of hosting social media. Focus on who has access to data and use content interventions to nudge people toward better awareness.

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MIT IDE Paula Klein, Editor

MIT IDE Paula Klein, Editor

Addressing one of the most critical issues of our time: the impact of digital technology on businesses, the economy, and society.