Misinformation Amplified by Social Media

As Daniel Patrick Moynihan once wrote, “Everyone is entitled to his own opinion, but not his own facts.

Dec 10, 2020

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by Larry Magid

This post first appeared in the Mercury News

I have long accepted the fact that not everyone sees the world as I do, so it doesn’t particularly bother me when I come across an opinion online or in the media that differs from mine. If anything, diversity of opinion is a strength. It keeps public officials on their toes and — in normal times — helps prevent impulsive and one-sided decision making. But, as Daniel Patrick Moynihan once wrote, “Everyone is entitled to his own opinion, but not his own facts.” This is especially important when it comes to confidence in our voting systems as well as accuracy when it comes to how to protect the public from a deadly disease.

The result of the presidential election is one of many examples. As is always the case, Americans were divided over who they wanted to become president, but — unique to this election — we are also divided over who we think won the election. The math is clear but, depending on who you believe, other facts remain in dispute.

I’ve spent some time looking not just at Donald Trump’s tweets, but at people’s responses and they include numerous claims of a vast and successful conspiracy involving thousands of officials from both political parties along with officials from a voting machine company and foreign actors, including former Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez who died in 2013.  It doesn’t matter that experts, election officials, and more than 30 judges have debunked these theories — they continue to spread online, backed up by bizarre details, so-called “evidence” and perceived “facts” that widely circulate on some TV and radio shows and in social media yet never seem to wind up in court where judges have the power to punish lawyers or witnesses who lie. Some of the theories — like a vast conspiracy involving elected Republican officials and Trump-appointed judges are seemingly beyond belief, yet they have been repeated so much on social media that they have become “facts” in the minds of those who believe them and continue to spread them.

Some who believe that the election was stolen argue that it’s their patriotic duty to take up arms against the oppressors who they feel have sabotaged their democracy. To them, using guns to fight against the election officials and others who they think conspired to steal the election seems to be as patriotic as when George Washington led an armed rebellion against King George. One Trump supporter tweeted “I am willing to give my life for this fight,” which was retweeted by the official Twitter account of Arizona’s Republican Party.

My fear is that someone will take that tweet literally, not only potentially giving up his or her life, but the lives of others. We’ve already seen armed protests outside the home of Michigan’s secretary of state and death threats against public officials in Georgia, Michigan, and other states whose only crime was doing their jobs. Gabriel Sterling, a Republican who manages Georgia’s election system was livid when he warned “Someone is going to get hurt, someone is going to get shot, someone is going to get killed, and it’s not right. It’s not right.”

Labels not enough

Both Facebook and Twitter have put up labels around false tweets from the president and others indicating that they have been disputed but — according to Buzzfeed News,  “Internal data shows that labels on President Trump’s posts decrease reshares by about 8%,” and “still account for some of the most engaging posts on the platform.” If this is true, then putting a label on a lie doesn’t stop the lie. Admittedly, taking them down or deleting the accounts of those who post them won’t stop the lie either thanks to Parler and other alternative social media channels that are happy to encourage these posts.

Conspiracy theories are often based at least partially on facts which, strung together, support a conclusion that is totally false. Suitcases of ballots stored under a table look suspicious until it’s explained that they were legitimate ballots put there by election officials for safekeeping, Nevermind that this was done in full view of the press and video cameras. The fake rumor was amplified on social media and became “fact,” just like the report that using sharpies invalidated Arizona ballots or the tweet claiming that “10,000 people that are confirmed deceased…requested and returned absentee ballots in Wavey County (Michigan).” The BBC picked 30 of those names at random and spoke “directly to 11 people (or to a family member, neighbor or care home worker) to confirm they were still alive.”  BBC added, “For 17 others, there was no public record of their death, and we found clear evidence that they were alive after the alleged date of death on the list of 10,000. A clear pattern emerged – the wrong records had been joined together to create a false match.”

COVID-19 lies could by deadly

False election claims are bad enough but bogus posts about COVID-19 are even more dangerous if they encourage people to deliberately avoid basic public health precautions like mask wearing, hand washing and social distancing or try unproven and potentially dangerous drugs like hydroxychloroquine.  Again, social media companies have tried to demote or — in some cases — delete potentially dangerous false information, but like weeds growing through the cracks in sidewalks, they continue to emerge and spread.

I’m particularly worried about false information about COVID-19 vaccines.  While it’s appropriate to raise well-researched concerns about the safety or efficacy of any medical practice, it’s not OK to spread false information that could discourage people from protecting themselves and others by taking the vaccines. We’ve already seen the “anti-vaxxer” movement grow on social media with accounts on Facebook reaching nearly 32 million followers on Facebook, 17 million on YouTube and more than 2 million on Twitter, according to the Center for Countering Digital Hate.

Action is needed

I know that social media companies are trying to be responsible, but they have a lot more work to do. Although I urge caution when it comes to government involvement in regulating media, I do think there’s room for some frank discussions and would like to see the incoming Biden administration convene a commission on accuracy in social media involving the companies, policymakers, and experts from nonprofits and academia.

Disclosure: Larry Magid is CEO of ConnectSafely.org, a nonprofit internet safety organization that receives support from Facebook, Google, Twitter and other technology companies.

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