American democracy is losing the fight against Trump's misinformation. We need to turn it around.
- The coronavirus pandemic rages on, but there's another virus we constantly have to deal with: misinformation.
- The Trump administration operates in lies which are slowly undermining American democracy.
- It's time for social media companies to step up and help fight back.
- Michael Gordon is a longtime Democratic strategist, a former spokesman for the Justice Department, and the principal for the strategic-communications firm Group Gordon.
- This is an opinion column. The thoughts expressed are those of the author.
- Visit Business Insider's homepage for more stories.
The misinformation outbreak has hit our elections. President Trump is intensifying attacks on our democratic processes by misleading people about voting twice, falsely claiming that mail-in voting is fraud-ridden, and threatening to cast doubt on the results.
And it's even disrupting critical, lifesaving missions. Officials managing the devastating fires on the West Coast have had to contend simultaneously with right wing conspiracists fanning the flames of social media with lies about the blaze's origin. This systematic deception distracted law enforcement and journalists who had to respond to rumors instead of getting out the facts.
We need to counter this terrifying trend with an all-out offensive.
It's long past time for corporate America and government to stop those who knowingly and deliberately spread dangerous, false information.
Politics trumps truth
This misinformation crisis should disturb all Americans who believe in our democracy, but unfortunately many see it as an opportunity for political gain. Conservative media and commentators across traditional and social media have created a propaganda machine for Trump that promotes QAnon conspiracy theories, racist birtherism against Kamala Harris, and altered reality about protests for racial justice.
Since the start of COVID-19, the right has misled Americans with falsehoods that support their agenda. Because the truth looked bad for Trump, they falsely claimed that the virus was no worse than the common cold. Misinformation has exacerbated the horrifying toll claimed by the virus.
Some of this is political hyperbole, but some of it is beyond figuratively dangerous.
When misinformation meets prosecution
In the US, it is and should be very difficult to prosecute people who spread false – and sometimes dangerous – information. There are real concerns about the implications for free speech and individual rights, which are the foundations of our democracy. We must not let those crack, but there's more we can do.
When viral misinformation has led to prosecution, there's usually a connection to other crimes. That's why the FBI arrested a man for soliciting investments for a fake coronavirus cure, and a South Carolinian was jailed for faking a positive coronavirus test to skip work. And the man who fell for and acted on the phony Pizzagate conspiracy is serving four years in prison.
Meanwhile, our fraudster-in-chief and his army of liars get away with hawking fake cures because the bar is set much lower for politicians.
Healthy democracies have started to crack down on misinformation. In Spain, spreading misinformation can carry a sentence of up to five years in jail. In Germany, the Enforcement on Social Networks Act requires social media companies to remove fake news, hate speech, and illegal content or face fines up to $60 million. No policy has been without problems, but avoiding the problem because it's hard definitely won't solve it.
Our current laws are for individuals promulgating misinformation, but the larger issue comes from the systems that allow these messages to take hold of the public. It shouldn't be so easy for bad actors to intentionally spread false information that endangers public health, promotes violence, and threatens our electoral process. The platforms that amplify their dangerous messages must do more.
The onus on social media
The biggest opportunity – and responsibility – to combat the spread of misinformation is on social media companies.
Legislators, corporations, and the public have increasingly focused on holding social media platforms accountable. This pressure has led some social media companies, like Twitter and LinkedIn, to ban political ads outright or take steps to weed out or flag misinformation in organic posts. Others, like Facebook and YouTube, not so much – though public pressure did lead to a minor concession from Facebook to ban new political ads in the week before the election.
Some social media sites have also started adding disclaimers or context to misleading posts or pages, even directing people to more fact-based sources to find information on a topic. Twitter announced last month that it would start labeling government or state-run accounts.
In Europe, regulators have taken more aggressive steps to force social media companies to address misinformation. Earlier this summer, the EU unveiled new guidelines that would require social media platforms to submit monthly reports outlining what they're doing to stop the "infodemic" around the pandemic.
There's much more we can do at the corporate and governmental levels to fight misinformation.
Social media companies must update their products to reduce the spread of dangerously misleading content related to the pandemic. Their usual algorithms aren't suited for this moment and the proliferation of bots is only making things worse. When people's lives are literally at stake, content should be amplified based not on its popularity but on its veracity.
Congress must do more to regulate the social platforms through which more and more Americans are getting much of their news. Because social media companies are designated as internet service providers under Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, they argue that they are not publishers but platforms for exchanging ideas. As such, they don't face the same responsibilities and consequences as news publishers or broadcasters.
But Facebook is making its claims to be a neutral platform for content at the same time that they and others are also touting their strength and offerings in news. These platforms can't have it both ways.
Moreover, under the "Good Samaritan" provision of Section 230, social media companies are asked, not mandated, to regulate harmful or illegal information on their platforms. While most have policies for taking down sexually explicit or offensive content, they hide behind Section 230 when it comes to political misinformation. If they won't police their own platforms to prevent it, new regulations could require them to take misinformation more seriously.
Just as reputable news outlets hold journalists to reporting standards and publishers risk defamation suits for knowingly printing false information, so too should social media companies assert more responsibility for what they allow on their platforms. Some social media sites have adopted measures to verify or label information organically circulating on their platforms. More needs to be done to call out indisputable lies.
Most social media platforms have taken some steps to regulate or ban political ads. Facebook, which still allows political ads, has increased transparency about who is paying for ads – but there are too many cracks to slip through. Social networks must invest more into these efforts to ensure they are effective in policy and practice.
Considering the pervasive influence of Facebook and the relatively small economic impact of political ads on their top line, the powers there need to step out of their echo chamber. The alternative is that their legacy will be not changing the way we connect but creating a home for dangerous right-wing provocateurs.
We must explore every solution, but that will only be possible if we put into power those who take the problem seriously. Led by our conspiracist-in-chief, the Trump administration is the quintessence of the problem. There is no solution while he's in office.
Under a Joe Biden Administration, there's hope that the U.S. will curb both pandemics before us. In more ways than one, truth is on the ballot election day.
This is an opinion column. The thoughts expressed are those of the author(s).
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