Why We’re F*cked on Disinformation

Below is my third for Exponents, Why We’re F*cked on Disinformation

According to a 2019 Congressional report, Russia-backed trolls posing as Americans stoked racial tensions, targeted Black Americans with false information on how to vote, and successfully organized in-person rallies and demonstrations to support Donald Trump’s candidacy in the 2016 election.

In one instance, Russian operatives organized duel rallies in Houston. Anti-Muslim Texas secessionists waved Confederate flags and held “White Lives Matter” banners while Muslim civil rights activists counterprotested

We’re likely to see more Russian-backed disinformation in the runup to the 2020 elections. And China is also getting in the game, with Google claiming to have deleted more than 2,500 YouTube channels tied to China for disinformation. 

Conspiracy Theorist Politicians

Foreign actors are promoting a right-wing conspiracy theory called “QAnon.” Adherents believe an anonymous tipster called “Q” is revealing how President Donald Trump is leading a secret war against a cabal of Satan-worshipping, child-molesting, child-murdering elites.

Far from an online-only phenomenon, QAnon has inspired armed standoffsattempted kidnappings, and one killing since 2017. In 2019, the FBI designated QAnon as a potential domestic terrorist threat. 

Yet more than 60 current and former congressional candidates have publicly promoted QAnon, including nearly two dozen current congressional candidates, six of whom are on the November ballot.

An Information World War

“There is a war happening,” writes disinformation expert Renee DiResta. “We are immersed in an evolving, ongoing conflict: an Information World War in which state actors, terrorists, and ideological extremists leverage the social infrastructure underpinning everyday life to sow discord and erode shared reality.”

This week Facebook removed hundreds of foreign troll farm accounts posing as Black Trump supporters and QAnon acolytes. Twitter has banned 7,000 QAnon accounts and limited 150,000 more for swarming Trump critics with targeted harassment. 

But these companies aren’t incentivized to do much to combat disinformation. All the evidence indicates that Mark Zuckerberg, CEO of Facebook, wants to be cozy with whoever’s in power. 

At the July 29th Congressional hearing on antitrust, Republican Jim Jordan spent his time asking the Facebook CEO why he deleted a post on Twitter. Which of course isn’t an antitrust issue. Republicans are too focused on their own conspiracy theory that social media platforms are censoring right-wing content to tackle disinformation. Especially when that disinformation tends to favor their candidates. They claimed, for instance, that Breitbart lost 99% of its traffic due to Facebook censorship. Yet public analytics reporting showed no such dip. 

If social media platforms began consistently censoring domestic disinformation Republicans then conservative claims would indeedbecensoredbecausetheyareconstantlyspreadingpatentfalsehoods. No one should expect a thorough attempt at combatting disinformation on Facebook. 

At Twitter, CEO Jack Dorsey is checked out. YouTube profits immensely from conspiracy content. And TikTok is owned by a company that’s legally required to do the bidding of the Chinese government. 

Congress Isn’t Going To Save The Day

If you’re hoping Democrats in Congress can save us, know that at the July 29th tech hearing Congress live streamed a video of a TV screen instead of the native video. Democrats did ask some good questions on anti-competitive behavior on the part of tech companies. But when it came to disinformation, at one point Rep Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez asked Zuckerberg whether he’s going to take down posts that are lies. Literally no sane person wants Mark Zuckerberg to be in charge of deciding what’s true and what isn’t. 

The problem with disinformation isn’t just that it’s inspiring domestic terror and subverting our Democracy. It’s also creating divisions that are harder to measure. By sowing distrust in our government and media, it’s cleaving off a subset of Americans from the mainstream. Whereas once we more or less had a set of common facts and would debate how to interpret them, now our subcultures have their own facts. Now it doesn’t matter that there’s no evidence that elites are trafficking children through overpriced Wayfair items. Nor does it matter that evidence abounds that DHS agents are molesting hundreds of children at the border. Disinformation is fueling the fire of a post-truth America. How do you have a shared culture, shared values, or a shared vision if you can’t agree on reality? 

A Potential Solution, Maybe The Only One

Since 2016, Craigslist Founder Craig Newmark has donated $170 million to combat disinformation. His weapon of choice is truth. His money goes to orgs that fund reporting and protect journalists, among other causes. If we don’t fight back, “The people who are in control of this country will be subject to some control by our foreign adversaries and will continue to dismantle our democracy,” Newmark said.

No democracy can function without a strong, free, and respected Fourth Estate. If we don’t pour as much into bolstering our press as other countries are pouring into dismantling our democracy, it likely will not survive. I believe it’s incumbent on tech to fight disinformation. But not by hand-deciding which posts are true. Instead, it’s incumbent on tech to rebuild the investigative reporting and analysis function they helped kill. They should pour their money into giving reporters and analysts the time and resources they need to find and distribute the facts. Sunlight is the best disinfectant. And the best defense against disinformation is trustworthy sources for correct information. In reality, it’s probably the only defense we have.