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Can tech save democracy? part II

Why social media fail to censor fake and misleading news

Recap

In Part I of this Insights article, I gave you a quick overview of Thomas Friedman’s new book, “Thank You for Being Late.” He makes a compelling case that Moore’s Law (rapid advances in digital power), the Globalization of Markets and Climate Change are converging to create a tsunami of radical change throughout the world.

In this installment, I focus on how social media algorithms, carefully developed to capture the widest possible audience, have opened a gigantic back door to fake news as well as factually misleading accounts of current events that can heavily influence election outcomes.

Will Facebook follow through on its promis to promote objective news?

For a democracy to function, it needs an informed electorate. If people don’t get an objective understanding of a candidate’s record and policies, they can easily be manipulated into voting for him or her and–against their best interests. Unfortunately, social media platforms like Facebook (FB) have become echo chambers, reinforcing the ‘confirmation biases’ people quickly develop about politicians, political parties, and breaking events.

Sources of social media disinformation are by no means limited to radical sources like the alt-right. For example, Jestin Coler, aka Allen Montgomery, heads up Disinfomedia, an organization with 25 domains that are a primary source of fake news in the media. Ironically, he is a liberal who began his work to expose the alt right but ended up spearheading many of the bogus anti-Hillary stories before the election. Why? It’s been an easy way for him to make a living.

Then, there’s FB CEO, Mark Zuckerberg, who in his personal life is politically progressive, but nonetheless, heads up the single biggest source of echo chamber news for people in the U.S. –The impact of FB is huge. The average American spends almost an hour a day on FB, with 60% of them relying on FB for political news. Research demonstrates that uneducated and young people are especially bad at distinguishing real from fake news sources. For these people, in particular, a linked article on FB to the Washington Post has no more weight than a fake news item.

Social media algorithms are designed to maximize profits, not civil discourse

FB and Google have received a lot of heat in recent weeks for letting fake news slip into their feed during the past election cycle. As a result, it appears FB is taking stronger measures to vet their content for truthfulness and to hold its advertisers to better standards.

In a response several weeks ago, FB CEO Zuckerberg recently stated–“We have always taken this seriously, we understand how important the issue is for our community and we are committed to getting this right,”

Though it’s too early to know how effective his organization’s remedies will be, FB, like Google and other social media platforms, rely heavily on Big Data-derived data to maximize views, clicks and likes to attract advertisers and satisfy their stakeholders. Bottom line–this means that ‘bad actors’ will still be able to influence what readers see. –Unfortunately, news media like CNN, Fox, and MSNBC pursue profits via ratings. So, they are driven by the same dynamic.

In my next installment, I’ll give you an introduction to strategies that we can apply individually and collectively to counter fake and inaccurate news and improve the level of civil discourse.

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