“We’re not just fighting an epidemic; we’re fighting an infodemic. Fake news spreads faster and more easily than this virus, and is just as dangerous.” And if we don’t tackle this, “we are headed down a dark path that leads nowhere but division and disharmony”.
— Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, Director-General of the World Health Organization, speaking to the Munich Security conference, February 15, 2020 (see The Guardian, “Fake News About Covid-19 Can Be as Dangerous as the Virus”)
In the past few weeks alone, major newspapers have reported: “Misinformation About George Floyd Protests Surges on Social Media” (The New York Times); “Twitter Became a Major Vehicle for Misinformation about Unrest in D.C.” (The Washington Post); and, “Bill Gates is not secretly plotting microchips in a coronavirus vaccine. Misinformation and conspiracy theories are dangerous for everyone.” (USA Today).
These reports emphasize the challenges with the spread of misinformation: how is it possible to identify when a news report is untrue? What are the factors that cause a story to spread online? And, can viral misinformation be stopped?
In a recent NPR/KUOW program, Stand with the Facts. Big Tech and the Fight Against Misinformation, University of Washington law professor Ryan Calo discusses what steps social media companies and the government can legally take to stop the spread of misinformation, while also ensuring that everyone has the right to express their opinion.
“Stand with the Facts” is a new series by NPR’s KUOW and the University of Washington’s Center for an Informed Public. The Center is a non-partisan organization that aims to address inaccurate information with fact-based analysis and research. Professor Calo is a principal investigator with the Center; associate professor in the School of Law, and co-director of the Tech Policy Lab.
Professor Calo also spoke with KUOW’s Kim Malcom about the challenges to minimize fake news for a separate but related story, Sharing Is Caring, Unless It’s Misinformation.
Below are a few excerpts from Sharing Is Caring, Unless It’s Misinformation.
Why False Information Is Everywhere
Whenever events unfold very rapidly, it is an opportunity for purveyors of disinformation to get ahead of the news and get ahead of good information by spreading lies. A lot of it has to do with, first, everyone's paying attention to it, and second, it's unfolding so fast that people who have good information are drowned out and outpaced by those who are trying to foment strife.
When to Take Down Misinformation, and When to Leave It Up
Specifically within Facebook, just in the last week, reporting has revealed a rift between the leadership, and particularly Mark Zuckerberg, and a number of employees. The employees would rather see Facebook take down problematic information by politicians, rather than to leave it up.
Especially President Trump, but any prominent politician. The arguments are really interesting. The people that want to leave it up, they argue something like this: Yes, it's a violation of our terms of service to say "When the looting starts, the shooting starts," but by taking it down, we withdraw from public scrutiny a very powerful and problematic statement that people ought to scrutinize.
The arguments on the other side are also quite powerful. They are something like: “Well, look, why should a person, by virtue of how powerful they are, and how visible they are, why should their statements get to survive and get to stay within the marketplace of ideas, when less powerful, less visible people who say similar things, they are silenced?”
Is There a Solution?
I think, in fact, we're going to need a range of things: teaching people to be able to detect and respond to misinformation; addressing really dangerous misinformation really quickly. But, the other thing is, we ought to consider whether this environment needs to slow down.
Both you as an individual hesitating before you share something, but also the very structure of social media is one of absolutely rapid, unedited, unfiltered discussion. There may be ways to slow down viral content, if it's perceived to be potentially a source of misinformation.
Read the interview or listen to the audio with University of Washington’s Ryan Calo and KUOW’s Kim Malcom, “Sharing Is Caring, Unless It’s Misinformation” which aired on June 8, 2020.
Watch the full interview (live streamed on June 9, 2020) with Professor Calo: Stand with the Facts. Big Tech and the Fight Against Misinformation.
About M. Ryan Calo
Ryan Calo is the Lane Powell and D. Wayne Gittinger Professor at the University of Washington School of Law. He is a founding co-director (with Batya Friedman and Tadayoshi Kohno) of the interdisciplinary UW Tech Policy Lab and the UW Center for an Informed Public (with Chris Coward, Emma Spiro, Kate Starbird, and Jevin West). Professor Calo holds adjunct appointments at the University of Washington Information School and the Paul G. Allen School of Computer Science and Engineering.