November 08, 2019
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Public awareness is the most powerful tool against online misinformation

Andrew Harnik | AP
Andrew Harnik | AP
In this April 11, 2018, file photo Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg testifies before a House Energy and Commerce hearing on Capitol Hill in Washington. Twitter's ban on political advertising is ratcheting up the pressure on Facebook and Zuckerberg to follow suit.

Facebook and Twitter, together responsible for delivering information and online content to over a billion users around the world, have responded very differently in the fight against political misinformation on their sites.

But one of the best ways to counter misleading and false information online doesn’t rest in policies developed in Silicon Valley. Instead, it rests in the awareness and digital literacy of the people using those platforms.

No matter what social media companies do to police or not police political ads on their sites, however, attempts to distort the truth for political and other gain will continue to flood our timelines. The best defense against this ugly truth is an informed public that can recognize and resist attempted misinformation, meeting irresponsible and incorrect speech with more speech rather than a form of  “enforced silence” from the social media companies themselves (though such efforts from within the companies are certainly preferable to external, and potentially unconstitutional, efforts to do so from lawmakers).

Two weeks ago, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg testified before Congress and told legislators that his company would not be blocking even false political ads.

“Our policy is that we do not fact-check politicians’ speech, and the reason for that is that we believe that in a democracy, it is important that people can see for themselves what politicians are saying,” Zuckerberg told members of Congress about Facebook’s approach to political advertising.

Zuckerberg and Facebook have faced a wave of criticism, most loudly from the political left, for not doing enough to curtail the undisputable proliferation of political misinformation online. Some of that criticism has been warranted. However, Zuckerberg has a point that giving users an opportunity to weigh different politicians messages for themselves, including an assessment of whether a politician or campaign is willing to spread lies, can be informative for voters.

Last week, in an apparent swipe at Facebook, Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey announced that his company would be moving to stop all political advertising on the site.

“While internet advertising is incredibly powerful and very effective for commercial advertisers, that power brings significant risks to politics, where it can be used to influence votes to affect the lives of millions,” Dorsey said in a string of Tweets on Wednesday. “Internet political ads present entirely new challenges to civic discourse: machine learning-based optimization of messaging and micro-targeting, unchecked misleading information, and deep fakes. All at increasing velocity, sophistication, and overwhelming scale.”

The move was met with swift criticism, especially from President Donald Trump’s campaign.

“Twitter just walked away from hundreds of millions of dollars in potential revenue, a very dumb decision for their stockholders,” Brad Parscale, Donald Trump’s 2020 campaign manager, said in response to Twitter’s decision. “Will Twitter also be stopping ads from biased liberal media outlets,” asked Parscale in a statement. “This is yet another attempt to silence conservatives since Twitter knows President Trump has the most sophisticated online program ever known.”

Parscale’s quote speaks to an important point: Twitter is making a business decision, and choosing to put what its leaders feel to be responsible considerations about truth in political discourse ahead of potential ad revenue. That’s commendable, even if it won’t solve the problem of misinformation being weaponized online.

“These challenges will affect ALL internet communication, not just political ads. Best to focus our efforts on the root problems, without the additional burden and complexity taking money brings. Trying to fix both means fixing neither well, and harms our credibility,” Dorsey continued Wednesday.

The narrative pitting Zuckerberg and Dorsey against each other with these different policies — even if that’s what the companies are angling for — misses a larger point: no matter what the social media giants decide to do with political ads, the best way to combat bad faith efforts to misinform is for the public to be prepared for it, and to be careful and skeptical consumers of online content.

 



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