You Can’t Always Trust What You Hear Online, and Congress Has Some Ideas About Fixing That
The hearings had been underway for about an hour and 15 minutes when Rep. Raja Krishnamoorthi piped up with an idea. “Are there ways,” the Illinois Democrat asked, “that we might be able to infect…the QAnon conspiracy web with other ideas or stories that could sow confusion and discord and cause it collapse in on itself? In other words, kind of embed other crazy things that might pit groups against each other?”
There was a brief pause. Then Joan Donovan, research director at Harvard’s Shorenstein Center, offered an objection. Algorithmic recommendation systems “respond to that sort of excitement,” she noted, and Krishnamoorthi’s operation might just keep the QAnon conversation alive.
It was October 15, and Donovan was one of four witnesses testifying via video call to the House Intelligence Committee. She was joined by Cindy Otis, a former CIA officer now based at the Alethea Group; by Melanie Smith, who works at the social media analytics firm Graphika; and by Nina Jankowicz, a Wilson Center analyst with the wonderful job title “disinformation fellow.” The hearing was titled “Misinformation, Conspiracy Theories, and ‘Infodemics’: Stopping the Spread Online,” and much of it was given over to discussing what public regulators and private platforms should do about the dubious claims that circulate on social media.
Early in Donovan’s testimony, for example, she quoted a statement Facebook issued in January: “In the absence of regulation, Facebook and other companies are left to design their own policies. We have based ours on the principle that people should be able to hear from those who wish to lead them, warts and all.” Donovan didn’t approve of that approach. “Policies like this push corporate responsibility onto the public and onto other professional sectors,” she complained. As a result, she argued, reporters and others have been left to clean up social media’s messes. “Covering misinformation is a drain on newsrooms’ resources, which could be much better spent on sustaining journalism rather than moderating content on platforms.”
This seems backward to me. Factchecking politicians and chasing down rumors to confirm or debunk them have always been parts of a journalist’s job. Reporters don’t always do those tasks well, but they’re much more likely to get it right than a Facebook moderator is. In my dream world, communicating on social media would typically be as unhindered as communicating on email, a
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