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Since 2016, Social Media Misinformation Has Both Improved and Worsened, Say Panelists

Adrienne Patton

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Photo of social media panelists at the State of the Net conference by Adrienne Patton

WASHINGTON, January 28, 2020 – Are Americans better or worse off since the disinformation debacle on social media in the 2016 election year? The question is a tech-focused echo of the quadrennial refrain said by presidential candidates. It was asked by the moderator at a panel discussion of social media and democracy at the State of the Net on Tuesday.

Each panelist agreed that there have been both improvements and new challenges since the 2016 election.

Camille François, chief innovation officer for Graphika, said that since the United States recognized the Russian trolls four years ago, many more actors now engage with misinformation agendas, including domestic trolls.

Federal Election Commissioner Ellen Weintraub said the leading tech platforms have each taken a different approach to tackling misinformation. Twitter, she said, has decided to not allow political advertising. But there are still complicated nuances around Twitter’s staunch ban, said Weintraub.

Weintraub sees serious issues with Facebook’s microtargeting marketing approach. Weintraub’s concern is the elimination of counter speech through microtargeting. If a platform user cannot see the misinformation available, then the user cannot counter it, said Weintraub.

Weintraub believes microtargeting advertisements have “the potential to magnify and amplify misinformation” instead of dispelling or negating it.

Annenberg Public Policy Center Distinguished Fellow Susan Ness said that while the situation has improved on some levels, “people now have far less trust in their institutions.”

François said it was difficult to define misinformation and calculate it. Indeed, she said, recognizing the danger of misinformation in an election and knowing who the actors are and how they organize their pursuits is of the utmost importance.

Weintraub said that no single entity could be delegated with the task of defining truth. Rather, Weintraub said that there needs to be a system for dealing with the material that is “just egregiously untrue, egregiously harmful.”

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