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By now, it’s clear that social media is full of misinformation, disinformation and just plain lies. Open up your social media feed of choice on any day, and you’ll likely find a mix of outrageous conspiracy theories, scandalous headlines, and plenty of narratives that could easily double as far-left or far-right propaganda. So why aren’t the big Silicon Valley social media companies doing more to clean up the spread of this misinformation?
Modest interventions and basic nudges
The simple answer is that they are trying to, but many of the most basic interventions do not seem to work as well as hoped. According to the latest research from the University of Washington, for example, “modest” interventions like asking a user to read a news story before sharing or re-posting on social media might limit the reach of misinformation by anywhere from 5 to 15%. That’s helpful, but won’t stop a story from going viral.
In order to limit the spread of misinformation even further, a social media platform has to take ever-more stringent steps. For example, Twitter or Facebook could use artificial intelligence (AI) algorithms to fact-check anything being posted on their platforms. Placing all kinds of warning labels on content can stop the spread of misinformation considerably, but also starts to get into the realm of censorship. And, of course, an outright ban on certain content or individuals is even further down the slippery slope of censorship. In America, everyone is entitled to their opinions, even if you think they are wrong, misguided or misinformed.
New incentives for social media users
Remember the old Mark Twain line, “A lie can travel half way around the world while the truth is putting on its shoes”? Well, that’s more true than ever in the era of social media. The idea that social media platforms can ever fully crack down on all the misinformation and disinformation out there is perhaps misguided. Even if Facebook and Twitter deployed ever more AI bots, they still might not be able to clamp down fully on viral content. According to the University of Washington study, for example, a combination of nudges and interventions can cut down on approximately one-half of all misinformation. But that still leaves the other half of the misinformation out there.
So maybe there is a need for new incentives to create accurate content. Right now, the emphasis is on rewarding users who get the most followers, the most likes and the most clicks. This naturally leads to a situation wherein content creators try to come up with the most salacious clickbait possible. They need to frame every story as somehow worthy of outrage or disbelief. If you do not think that the world is ending because X did Y, after all, then you might not click.
So how about a new type of social media that is more social and less anti-social? Instead of convincing all of us to become influencers with massive social media followings, maybe they should be convincing all of us to become better citizens, better fathers and mothers, and better people.