The Unfortunate Truth about Social Media Misinformation (PODCAST)

Social Media and Misinformation

Social Networks rose to dominance on the promise of dethroning the mainstream media. No longer would broadcasters and print publishers have a chokehold on what stories got told.

Who needs journalism or public relations to protect your reputation if you can bypass the gatekeepers and tell your story yourself?

Direct-to-audience storytelling and personal branding were the harbingers of direct-to-consumer e-commerce. Together, they’re called content marketing agencies, and for direct-to-consumer e-commerce companies, they are a huge revenue opportunity.

But the unintended consequences of unfiltered, unfact-checked information as well as entertainment from social media, we are now learning, are depression, isolation, addiction, eating disorders, and in the case of conspiracy theorists, vaccine resistance and election fraud conspiracies.

What so many of us thought would be the democratization of information has become an infodemic. But it’s all reversible. Social networks move sensational posts to the top of the screen because they are financially rewarded and shielded from any legal liability. They profit from the spread of false news and downright crazy content because unlike broadcast media programmers, you can’t sue social media programmers for what they amplify. You can only sue the author of the post.

That’s because of a law called the Communications Decency Act, which in Section 230 gives social networks broad immunity from any legal liability stemming from content created by others. They’re even allowed to edit other people’s posts – whether for accuracy or civility – so long as their edits don’t change the meaning.

Misinformation on Social Media

When Section 230 was enacted, engagement-based amplification hadn’t been invented. The thinking was that if telephone companies weren’t liable for what people said on phone calls, and Xerox wasn’t responsible for what people made copies of, social networks shouldn’t be able to be sued out of existence for what people shared on their platforms.

At the time, social media feeds were displayed in reverse chronological order. The newest message appeared at the top of the stack, and people went back to see the latest post. Social networks played no editorial role in what posts were displayed at the top of the screen. That was determined only by the passage of time.

But in 2006, Facebook introduced their Edge Rank algorithm, displaying by default those posts that got the most likes, comments and shares at the top of the screen instead of the most current ones. Reach became a factor of engagement. 

As William Randolph Hearst – the original fake news purveyor – once said, “if it bleeds, it leads” and Facebook’s algorithm automated that concept by seeking out and putting the most emotionally engaging content at the top of what Mark Zuckerberg’s company opportunistically dubbed the “newsfeed.”

Whistleblower Frances Haugen made it easy to understand that engagement-based amplification is intentional and not arbitrary, because Facebook decides who sees what. And if they make decisions about who sees what, they’re no longer an innocent bystander. 

Facebook – and all the other digital media services that use engagement-based amplification – is much more like a news media outlet than a telephone company. For that reason, holding them harmless for what people say on their platforms doesn’t make sense. In fact, it gives them an unfair advantage over mainstream media, which are legally accountable for the information they amplify. 

Facebook invented engagement-based ranking, but they aren’t the only social network using it to increase user session time. Twitter, Linkedin, Instagram, TikTok, Reddit, Apple, Amazon and nearly every other popular digital media platform uses engagement to decide what posts, products and apps appear top screen. 

How to Stop the Spread of Fake News

Outlawing algorithms won’t solve the problem. As long as the social media misinformation is profitable and companies can get rich by amplifying lies, they have a fiduciary responsibility to their shareholders to do so. Removing the legal liability protections the social networks enjoy is a practical way to arrest the spread of misinformation that threatens democracy. The burden of proof should also be shifted to the accused – as is the case in UK libel cases – so defendants with deep pockets can’t put legal challenges out of reach for individuals.

Reforming Section 230 and recognizing the social networks as active participants in the spread of misinformation is the answer to putting truth before lies, intellect before influence, and talent before popularity. Now’s the time to make the social media circus into the sideshow it should be.

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