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For too long, social media networks such as Facebook have been able to hide behind the excuse that they are simply “platforms” without any real responsibility for the types of content that users create for them on a daily basis. With the exception of “hate speech” – which social networks are typically quick to remove – there’s a lot less willingness to remove other forms of content (especially misinformation or disinformation) that shows up online far more often than we’d like to admit.
New Oxford study on disinformation
For example, take the new University of Oxford study on disinformation, which looks at how and why entities such as political parties and government agencies use disinformation campaigns on social media. In 2017, only 28 countries – including the usual suspects such as Russia and China – were actively using disinformation online. By 2018, that number had increased to 48. And, in 2019, says Oxford, the number had spiraled up to 70 different countries.
There’s a clear trend at work here, right? Around the world, political leaders, intelligence bureau chiefs, and government agencies have caught on to the idea that social media is a remarkably easy (and fertile!) way to sway and shape people’s opinions and attitudes. Very simple tactics – such as amplifying certain messages by “flooding” certain hashtags – are remarkably effective in accomplishing these goals.
In relatively benign cases, it might mean generating a fake show of popular support for a controversial new government initiative. In more severe cases, it might mean actively meddling in the political affairs of other nations in order to influence certain policies. (Oxford found examples of 7 nation-states that engage in this form of behavior.) And in the most severe cases, it might mean using social media to suppress human rights, mute members of the political opposition, and harass political rivals.
How can Facebook stop this flood of disinformation?
When faced with this sort of behavior, Facebook simply has not done enough to make the platform safe for users. Most people use social media simply to stay connected with friends and family, and have no interest whatsoever in seeing a constant stream of politically motivated content in their newsfeeds. So why not give them an option to filter out keywords, tweets or other content that is political in nature? This is not censorship because the content would still exist – but it would simply be hidden from view. Facebook would simply give users the right to opt-out.
For Facebook, it’s important to keep in mind that too much political content (whether misinformation, disinformation or the steady stream of political BS from both the Left and Right) ruins the social media experience. For example, a recent Pew Research Center study found that 59% of people found political content on social media to be “stressful and frustrating.”
Stop the disinformation before 2020
More and more, political content on Facebook is leading to political divisiveness and partisan fervor. With the 2020 election right around the corner, it’s natural to expect that this level of divisiveness and partisan fervor is going to be off the charts for the next year. There’s still time for Facebook to act before both Democrats and Republicans crank up their misinformation and disinformation campaigns. Mr. Zuckerberg, the ball is now in your court.