What’s going to 2022 usher in the way in which of misinformation on social media? three consultants weigh in | Columnists
At the end of 2020, given the intensity of the presidential election and the trauma of the COVID-19 pandemic, a worse year for misinformation on social media seemed unimaginable. But 2021 turned out to be up to the task, starting with the January 6 insurrection and continuing with numerous falsehoods and biases about COVID-19 vaccines.
To get a feel for what could bring in 2022, we asked three researchers about the development of misinformation on social media.
Lack of regulation, misinformation gets worse
Anjana Susarla, Professor of Information Systems, Michigan State University:
While there has always been misinformation in the media – think of the Great Moon Hoax of 1835 that claimed life on the moon was discovered – the advent of social media has significantly increased the scope, spread, and reach of misinformation . Social media platforms have evolved into public information services that control how most people see the world, making misinformation a fundamental problem for society.
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There are two main challenges in combating misinformation. The first is the lack of regulatory mechanisms to counter this. Committing transparency and giving users better access to and control over their data could go a long way in overcoming the challenges of misinformation. But there is also a need for independent audits, including tools to evaluate social media algorithms. These can determine how the decisions made by social media platforms in curating news feeds and presenting content affect how people see information.
The second challenge is that racial and gender biases in algorithms used by social media platforms exacerbate the misinformation problem. While social media companies have put in place mechanisms to highlight authoritative sources of information, solutions like marking posts as misinformation do not resolve racial and gender biases when accessing information. Highlighting relevant sources, for example for health information, can only help users with greater health literacy and not people with low health literacy who tend to disproportionately belong to minorities.
Another problem is the need to systematically examine where users can find misinformation. TikTok, for example, has largely escaped government control. In addition, misinformation targeting minorities, especially Spanish-language content, can be far worse than misinformation targeting majority communities.
I believe that the lack of independent audits, the lack of transparency in fact-checking, and the racial and gender bias underlying the algorithms of social media platforms suggest the need for urgent and immediate regulatory action in 2022.
Growing divisions and cynicism
Dam Hee Kim, Assistant Professor of Communication, University of Arizona:
Fake news is not a new phenomenon, but its cost has reached a different level in recent years. Misinformation about COVID-19 has cost countless lives around the world. Incorrect and misleading information about elections can shake the very foundations of democracy, for example by losing people’s trust in the political system. Research I conducted with S. Mo Jones-Jang and Kate Kenski on misinformation during the elections, some of which was made public and some of which are ongoing, has revealed three key findings.
The first is that using social media, which was originally intended to connect people, can facilitate social breakups. Social media is full of misinformation. As a result, citizens who consume news on social media become cynical not only towards established institutions like politicians and the media, but also towards fellow voters.
Second, politicians, the media and voters have become scapegoats for the damage caused by fake news. Few of them actually produce misinformation. Most of the misinformation is produced by foreign organizations and political fringe groups who produce “fake news” for financial or ideological reasons. However, citizens who consume misinformation on social media tend to blame politicians, the media and other voters for it.
The third lesson is that people who care about being properly informed are not immune to misinformation. People who prefer to process, structure and understand information in a coherent and meaningful way become more politically cynical when exposed to perceived “fake news” than people who are less politically demanding. These critical thinkers get frustrated with processing so much false and misleading information. This is worrying because democracy depends on the participation of committed and thoughtful citizens.
Looking ahead to 2022, it is important to address this cynicism. Much has been said about media literacy interventions, especially to help the less politically educated. In addition, it is important to find ways to explain the status of “fake news” on social media, especially who is producing “fake news”, why some companies and groups are producing it, and which Americans are falling for it. This could help prevent people from becoming politically cynical.
Instead of blaming each other for the damage caused by “fake news” produced by foreign organizations and marginalized groups, people need to find a way to restore trust in one another. Mitigating the effects of misinformation will help the overall goal of overcoming social divisions.
Propaganda under a different name
Ethan Zuckerman, Associate Professor of Public Order, Communication and Information, UMass Amherst:
I expect the misinformation idea to turn into a propaganda idea in 2022, as suggested by sociologist and media scientist Francesca Tripodi in her upcoming book “The Propagandist’s Playbook”. Most misinformation is not the result of an innocent misunderstanding. It is the product of specific campaigns to advance a political or ideological agenda.
Once you understand that Facebook and other platforms are the battlefield on which contemporary political campaigns are fought, you can let go of the notion that all you need is facts to correct people’s misunderstandings. What is going on is a more complex mix of belief, tribal, and signaling that plays out in places from social media to search results.
As the 2022 election heats up, I expect platforms like Facebook to hit a breaking point on misinformation as certain lies have become a central political talk for party affiliation. How do social media platforms handle when false speech is also political speech?
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