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Social Media Disinformation Likely to Keep Expanding

From politics and healthcare to news about global problems like climate change, social media disinformation has reached epidemic proportions and is likely to keep getting worse

From politics and healthcare to news about global problems like climate change, social media disinformation has reached epidemic proportions and is likely to keep getting worse. According to the Pew Research Center, at least one in five Americans admit to getting the bulk of their political news from social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter.

According to Pew:

“A new Pew Research Center analysis of surveys conducted between October 2019 and June 2020 finds that those who rely most on social media for political news stand apart from other news consumers in a number of ways. These U.S. adults, for instance, tend to be less likely than other news consumers to closely follow major news stories, such as the coronavirus outbreak and the 2020 presidential election. And, perhaps tied to that, this group also tends to be less knowledgeable about these topics.”

People are spending more time online and on social media platforms in particular, but unlike professional news organizations and government agencies, social media platforms don’t have editorial standards or fact-checking safeguards in place to protect the public from misleading (and often dangerous) misinformation.

According to NPR, engagement on social media platforms like Facebook, Twitter, and Reddit has been on the rise for several years, and Americans were already spending more time on social media before the pandemic. People that rely on social media platforms for news and information about critical issues like elections and the coronavirus pandemic are more susceptible to misinformation and less likely to question the sources or veracity of the information they’re consuming.

Given the harm that social media disinformation can wreak on society and the attention it has garnered from governments and watchdog groups in recent years, why is social media disinformation so difficult to tackle and likely to keep expanding? Simply put: because it’s profitable.

According to an analysis in Harvard Business Review, it’s the business model of the social media platforms themselves that create fertile ground for disinformation to grow and spread from the furthest reaches of the internet and reach across the globe:

“For more than a decade, the business model for today’s social media giants, Facebook, YouTube, and Twitter has been to pursue scale. Great ideas, such as the video sharing platform Vine, were left behind in this pursuit, while shareholder KPIs were pegged to expanding the user base. This approach has a significant weakness: When a platform’s growth depends on openness, it’s more vulnerable to malicious use. As we can now see, this open business model can leave companies exposed in ways that these businesses are now are being forced to reckon with. There have been a few critical phases that lead to this moment. Each, in its own way, illustrated how the vulnerability of the open, scale-centric business model of social media platforms could be exploited.”

Another problem is the nature of misinformation and conspiracy theories, which tend to peak on social media and spread much faster and wider than factual information. According to MIT:

“False rumors spread faster and wider than true information, according to a 2019 study published in Science by MIT Sloan professor Sinan Aral and Deb Roy and Soroush Vosoughi of the MIT Media Lab. They found falsehoods are 70% more likely to be retweeted on Twitter than the truth, and reach their first 1,500 people six times faster. This effect is more pronounced with political news than other categories. Bots spread true and false information at the same rates, the researchers found, so people are the ones hitting retweet on false information. One potential reason: the novelty hypothesis, which found that people are drawn to information that is novel and unusual, as false news often is. (Not that bots don’t play a role in spreading misinformation — in fact, they can easily manipulate people’s opinions.)”

Despite the growing urgency to tackle the dangers of social media disinformation, social media companies have largely resisted calls for reform and regulation of their platforms, often pushing back with disingenuous arguments about free speech.

Without structural change that addresses how social media platforms grow, moderate content, and reward bad actors and bad behavior, the disinformation problem will continue to grow and get worse.

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