It’s Time for a Social Media and Disinformation Reckoning: ECT News Roundtable, Episode 6
Can social media be saved? Can democracy be saved?
The first query could seem much less compelling than the second, however to some very apprehensive observers, they’re intimately entwined.
Social networking — on Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and a host of different on-line networks — is the basis of all present cultural evils, within the eyes of some critics. However, campaigns to influence customers to withdraw from it have gained little traction.
Undeniably, social networks provide constructive experiences which might be laborious to surrender. They join folks immediately. They disseminate photographs of new child infants, scrumptious recipes and miraculously standing brooms. They tell us when celebrities — or outdated acquaintances — have handed on. They assist increase cash for good causes. They educate. They present a discussion board for discussions which might be penetrating and honest. For some, they’re an antidote for loneliness.
They additionally vacuum up customers’ private knowledge and share it with entrepreneurs to help alarmingly focused promoting campaigns. They present handy instruments for bullies to harass their victims. They provide a platform for hate speech and terrorist recruitment. They distort the reality. They unfold and amplify faux information and different lies. They sow mistrust and enmity amongst relations and mates. They chip on the very basis of long-treasured establishments. Some see them as an existential risk.
As a part of a complete digital dialogue on the state of expertise in 2020, we put two central inquiries to ECT’s panel of business insiders in an effort to tease aside a few of these tangled points. We requested them to determine the most important issues with social media and to suggest some potential options.
We additionally requested how involved they had been concerning the unfold of disinformation on-line, significantly with respect to elections, and for their insights on how that problem ought to be addressed.
Our roundtable members had been Laura DiDio, principal at
ITIC; Rob Enderle, principal analyst on the Enderle Group; Ed Moyle, associate at
SecurityCurve; Denis Pombriant, managing principal on the Beagle Research Group; and Jonathan Terrasi, a
tech journalist who focuses on laptop safety, encryption, open supply, politics and present affairs.
Social Media Ills in a Nutshell
The hassle with social media platforms, in accordance with our panelists, is that they make it really easy for folks to behave badly. Also, persons are too careless with their info. It’s too straightforward for an impulsive second to go viral.
There’s a lack of foresight relating to managing these huge private knowledge respositories. Social networks have all however destroyed privateness.
Social networking is addictive.
Platforms are biased. Standards should not utilized pretty.
They’re companies that need to revenue, above all else.
Some options? Break them up. Require licensing. Deploy synthetic intelligence screens. Regulate.
The Social Blob
Users are each the victims and the villains on social media, prompt Rob Enderle, who famous the tendency for folks to put up with out pondering.
“In general, many people think they can hide behind the anonymity of their keyboards and use social media as a weapon to bully other people, with little thought for the consequences of what they type,” stated Laura DiDio.
“Many people also overshare and provide too much information about themselves and their personal life. This too, can have unintended and often tragic consequences,” she added.
The social media enterprise mannequin is “exploitative,” remarked Jonathan Terrasi, “in the sense that consumers only nominally consent to it, very seldom providing truly informed consent.”
“Privacy is the biggest issue,” stated Ed Moyle.
One “macabre factor” is that customers’ social media accounts usually outlive them, famous DiDio.
“I still get notifications for birthdays, anniversaries, etc., for deceased friends and coworkers,” she remarked.
The problem of fixing social media could seem insurmountable, however there isn’t a scarcity of potential options on provide, starting from inventive methods to change private conduct to enterprise self-regulation to accepting the necessity for governmental intervention.
“The most obvious solution is to practice discretion, but I’m not sure how realistic that is for many people,” stated DiDio. “I’ve seen some people say they’re taking a break from Facebook or Twitter or Instagram in the morning only to be back posting a few hours later! To paraphrase Karl Marx: Social media is the opiate of the people.”
AI to the Rescue?
Instead of persuading folks to cease utilizing social media platforms, why not present instruments that may assist them have interaction extra properly?
Perhaps synthetic intelligence techniques may very well be of use on this regard, Enderle prompt.
Imagine that you just’re firing off an offended reply to your brother-in-law’s snarky political jibe and, as you sort, a little thought balloon pops up and asks you when you actually need to put up that remark. Perhaps the AI even suggests language that makes your level in a much less confrontational approach.
“To me, the most significant issue with social media is uniform and transparent applications of a platform’s ‘community standards,'” stated Terrasi.
“At this point, people seem to have not just conceded that social media puts limits on online speech, but have actually welcomed certain forms of what is, at the end of the day, censorship,” he identified.
“Whether it’s removing Islamic State (ISIS) content at the behest of the Obama administration, or social media cracking down on disinformation in the face of vociferous pressure from their users, policing certain kinds of speech on social media is a practice that users truly want,” Terrasi maintained.
“However, what we’re finding, both historically and presently, is that social media companies do not enforce their standards uniformly, and a lot of users — activists especially — feel that they are being dealt with more harshly than other users who have committed more grave infractions,” he stated.
“It’s gotten to the point where different political factions believe that a given social media platform is secretly carrying water for their opponents, which at the very least creates a toxic atmosphere for discourse,” Terrasi noticed.
“About 100 years ago, Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. wrote the defining standard for free speech,” stated Denis Pombriant.
“It had something to do with issuing propaganda during wartime. Holmes said that the speech much present a clear and present danger to society for society to take action against it. That’s where we get the idea that free speech or not, you can’t yell ‘fire’ in a crowded theater. It makes sense,” he continued.
“Using that standard, there are many things happening on social media today that violate the standard set by Holmes. Rather than regulating speech per se, which is a never-ending pit to fall into, if we applied simple structures that have worked well for centuries already, we could reduce the problem to a minimum without trampling anyone’s rights,” Pombriant prompt.
The Self-Policing Approach
One of the underlying issues with social media is the interior corruption of the platforms that’s attributable to runaway greed, prompt Pombriant.
“The CEOs represent a new gilded age,” he remarked.
“Social media has a business model problem that will be solved when they are broken up into platforms and apps,” Pombriant prompt.
Further, like different skilled organizations that police themselves, social media platforms ought to be subjected to certification and licensing for skilled participation, he argued.
“This works well for all kinds of occupations, from doctors and lawyers to electricians and barbers. You can cut your own hair, you can wire a socket in your own home, you can treat your own cold without professional intervention — but if you want to do any of those things for others you need a license,” Pombriant famous.
“Social media for personal use should not require any form of licensing, but when organizations use it to influence the public it is reasonable to require them to have demonstrated competency up to and including identifying who they are unambiguously,” he stated.
“How many social media ills could be solved right now with just minimal transparency? Not having that transparency is the core of a clear and present danger,” maintained Pombriant.
“I see what you’re saying, Denis, and it seems very elegant on paper, but I don’t see that working in practice — at least in the realm of political speech, which produced the consternation that precipitated the present vigorous public discourse on online speech,” Terrasi responded.
“If corporate or governmental political actors identified themselves as such, then we could by all means require licensing on their part,” he agreed.
“The reality, though, is that nothing will compel these actors to do any such thing. If, for instance, a private sector entity with fringe political agendas wants to incept its narrative, they will just get people to create accounts and generate content under the pretense that they are individuals sharing their sincerely held personal beliefs,” Terrasi stated.
“There is literally no way to police this practice, short of shaking down every user of every account and investigating the possibility that they represent some entity other than themselves,” he identified.
“Not only would these rogue political actors do this, but they have in fact done this: Russia sowed discord in the American public discourse in 2016 by fabricating fake personas of individuals with supposedly personally held beliefs, and these messages resonated with American voters enough that they were amplified,” Terrasi added. “I don’t see a realistic way to out every account that serves the interests of a larger entity, with or without licensing requirements.”
The Big Guns
Manipulation at a nationwide scale requires “intelligent regulation,” in accordance with Enderle.
That stated, “I fear ‘intelligent regulation’ is an oxymoron,” he added.
“It seems to me that the only long-term viable solution is regulation,” Moyle agreed.
“Social media needs to make money to operate, and companies will derive revenue in whatever way they’re allowed, so the business model won’t change until substantive government regulation gives them an ultimatum,” Terrasi chimed in.
“I believe that eventually the liabilities surrounding social media will eliminate or nationalize most of it,” Enderle predicted. “It is becoming one of the most useful tools to coordinate a variety of attacks and, traditionally, governments will prioritize eliminating risks like that.”
Doomed by Disinformation?
In this week’s casual ECT News ballot, we requested readers how involved they had been about on-line disinformation through the U.S. presidential election cycle. Although we’re nonetheless polling and the ultimate outcomes aren’t but in, a whopping 58 p.c of respondents to date stated they had been “very concerned,” and 15 p.c had been “somewhat concerned.” In distinction, 27 p.c of these polled had been “not at all concerned.”
There was no waffling amongst our roundtable panelists. They’re very apprehensive.
“Disinformation is everywhere. It is a potent weapon and made all the more so because many people simply do not recognize it as such,” stated DiDio.
“Too often the news media is guilty of promoting opinion instead of fact and in trying to be first instead of right,” she identified. “Early on in my career as a reporter, Ted Kavanau who was the news director at WNEW-TV in New York, had a sign posted as you entered the newsroom: ‘There are two sides to every story. How many sides did you get?'”
There are many forces seeding the mushrooming disinformation cloud, Enderle prompt.
“The proliferation of disinformation increasingly tied to foreign governments and fringe groups is greatly concerning as is the increased use of false statements of fact from political figures and national news organizations,” he stated.
“This appears to be tearing much of the West apart. Yet fixes could destroy free speech. These unfortunate trends could eventually destroy much of the democratic governments that exist and at the heart of the efforts are our own social networks. I fear the repercussions will be far more dire than we currently realize,” Enderle added.
“The problem is larger than elections IMHO,” agreed Moyle.
“The election problem is especially vexing because it involves foreign nations and such interference can be construed as an act of war,” famous Pombriant.
“We need to come together globally to agree on standards for what is OK and what is out of bounds. … It probably involves a cyberwar treaty or addendum to the Geneva Conventions,” he prompt.
“So Andrey Krutskikh, a senior Kremlin advisor, bragged concerning the
Russian disinformation capability in 2016,” Moyle identified.
“They will absolutely do this again. They have to in order to achieve the objective they wanted, as a negotiation instrument with the U.S.,” he continued.
“So get ready for that. More disinformation incoming for sure,” Moyle stated.
“While there is probably no way to know definitively one way or the other, elections prior to the 2016 U.S. federal election were not perceived, or forensically proven, to have been compromised by disinformation on social media — disinformation being intentional inaccuracy while misinformation is unintentional — despite the fact that social media has been a factor in campaigning for at least the previous two federal elections,” Terrasi identified.
“So the question we have to pose to ourselves is, did social media platforms actually become a more fertile ground for disinformation since 2012, or did the agent provocateurs and partisan political operatives simply get more adept in abusing social media to proliferate disinformation?” he questioned.
“It takes time for any actor to become versed in a new medium, and it could be that political actors are just acclimating to social media just as it took a while for them to fully leverage television,” Terrasi prompt.
“Political speech is one of the rare forms of First Amendment speech that is truly unlimited, so the government can’t really regulate what is said. Concurrently, social media has no incentive to ban all political speech from their platforms — even if they ban paid political ads, as some platforms have to date,” he added.
“Bearing all of that in mind, the only viable remedy for the manipulation of information intended for the political forum is tighter regulation on political spending, which is not something the federal government has pursued very far lately. Any change on this front will have to come from a bipartisan groundswell of popular support,” Terrasi maintained.
What to Do?
As grave as the issue could also be, there are methods to fight the tsunami of disinformation, our panelists maintained.
“The problem, and it is serious, can be solved through certification of users, breaking up the vendors, and demanding transparency,” insisted Pombriant.
“This is an ideal use of a behavioral AI looking for data trends and red flagging them for mitigation, or automatically mitigating with a defined escalation path to remediate any mistakes,” prompt Enderle.
The greatest resolution may very well be a extra primary one, nevertheless. To scale back the effectiveness of disinformation campaigns, we want a rise in crucial pondering abilities throughout the board,” stated Moyle.
“Many people aren’t trained well in critical thinking skills. They literally are unable to tell a biased or untrustworthy source from a reliable one,” he identified.
“Fixing this requires building up those skills — which is challenging to do. Long term, this issue will resolve itself. Young people now learn to tell the difference between news and spurious crap early as a survival skill,” Moyle famous.
“We likely should aggressively teach both confirmation bias and argumentative theory at a young age so our race learns to self-mitigate. We have found the problem and it truly is us,” Enderle added.
“The only sure defense is equipping everyone to serve as their own best advocate and critically evaluate all the information presented to them — and the motives behind its presentation. It is an arduous, unglamorous task, but it is the only one that promises a durable solution,” stated Terrasi.
“Everyone needs to check and vet their sources of information and not simply jump to conclusions and retweet or share so-called ‘facts’ before they are certain that it is factual and correct information,” urged DiDio.
“Think for yourself and question everything! That’s a good start,” she stated.
“In the digital age, information and disinformation is literally no further than our fingertips. Unfortunately, many people tend to consume information with less thought then they would give to what flavor they want in their morning beverage,” DiDio remarked.
“We as individuals and collectively as organizations — news, vendors etc. — have to demand critical thinking and apply standards and regulations for noncompliance,” she maintained.
Once disinformation hits the Internet, it’s totally troublesome to take down, DiDio noticed.
“So there must be consequences. Current laws have many loopholes, and we as a society must work to close those loopholes — and we must also enact new legislation that keeps pace with and adequately delivers punishment that fits the crime,” she argued.
The Institutions That Sustain Us
One doable strategy to stopping the insanity may very well be to shore up the establishments which have served our society effectively when different crises have threatened the social material.
“The threat posed by disinformation is certainly dire, but I think it is early to sound the death knell for liberal democracies,” Terrasi stated.
“I think some of this pessimism owes to the admittedly difficult nature of education-based campaigns, because all it takes is a large enough segment of uneducated or easily misled voters to swing an election — another case of the chain being only as strong as the weakest link,” he identified.
“I think that this effort can be bolstered by restoring integrity and vigor in our civil institutions,” Terrasi prompt.
“I know that that is a somewhat unpopular opinion at the moment, but institutions have historically been arbiters of contentious but complex subjects that make their outcomes felt on society at large,” he continued.
“I don’t think having expert bodies weighing in on complicated issues is a bad thing,” Terrasi added.
“What I will grant is that many institutions have been co-opted by narrow powerful interests, and that has to be addressed. I can accept if we need to clean house in some institutions, but I still think we need functioning ones to anchor public discourse in facts,” he emphasised. “It requires a compromise in which institutions admit their failings, and the public admits that ordinary people usually don’t have better answers to the intricacies of policy making than experts do.”