fake news

Social Media has been Hiding a Fake News Problem

Tech giants like Facebook and Twitter have been reluctant to combat the spread of fake news on their platform for nearly a decade. Now, in the midst of a pandemic, their failure to develop meaningful ways to combat fake news means that they are losing the battle against harmful lies about COVID-19.

Social Media has a fake news problem

In a shocking display of internal discontent, 140 scientists funded by the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative (CZI) signed an open letter to Mark Zuckerberg, publicly criticizing the social media platform’s lax policy towards fighting misinformation and fake news. The scientists expressed that the spread of divisive and false information, on the platform, particularly during the COVID-19 pandemic, was “directly antithetical” to the philanthropic mission of the CZI.

While Zuckerberg has remained firm in his refusal to regulate misinformation on his platform, other platforms like Twitter have begun to implement more rigorous fact checking policies. On May 28th, 2020, Twitter fact-checked two of President Trump’s misleading tweets against mail-in voting. Such a move prompted the signing of an executive order taking aim at the Section 230 privileges and immunities of online service providers such as Facebook and Twitter. The Trump administration has made it expressly clear that they will defend the president’s right to free speech on social media. Aside from the pervasive, highly-transmittable nature of fake news, social media platforms now face an additional hurdle in the form of government intervention in a struggle against fake news.

What was once a platform for sharing life updates and celebrity gossip has now transformed into a mass distribution network for news media. Social media’s role as a news outlet has grown, with 62% of American adults using social media as their primary source of news in 2016, a notable uptick from 49% just four years prior. By 2018, social media had outpaced print media as a source for news. However, the accuracy of this news can be questionable. Particularly in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, conspiracy theories like the “Plandemic” documentary promoted dangerous threats to public health, such as rejecting the suggestions of public health officials to wear a mask and opposing the eventual Coronavirus vaccine. The documentary was well received by the anti-vaxx movement, and spread through Facebook communities with astonishing speed, generating 7.1 million views in a mere 2 days.

While Facebook has attempted to curb the spread of fake news, employing tools to notify users that they may have seen fake coronavirus-related posts, and countering false posts with information from credible sources such as the CDC to users’ feeds, these efforts have been inconsistent and largely unsuccessful. Not only is notifying users in hindsight about fake news ineffective (studies show that the first instance we view a news headline is most pervasive in our memories), but independent analyses show that the platform has largely failed to launch a substantial effort against fake coronavirus new. The Avaaz Campaign has reported that over 40% of news that had been declared fake by Facebook’s third-party fact checking agencies have remained on the platform.

For years, social media platforms have either ignored or failed to realize the harms that fake political news inflicts on society. Some may believe that implicit harms from fake political news such as political polarization, an increase in hate crimes, and confusion over the facts do not affect them directly. But, the public harm inflicted when social media dispenses false medical advice is substantial. From claiming that coronavirus is a Democratic hoax, to spreading conspiracies of 5G-induced illnesses, fake news becomes deadly when people begin to trust these posts over medical professionals.

The complicity of social media platforms towards fake news, and their refusal to pursue meaningful strategies to regulate it has finally caught up to them. With Coronavirus, the need for solid, scientific fact is crucial, and social media companies are failing miserably. Even if platforms were effective at regulating user generated content, Facebook remains expressly defiant against regulating some of the biggest distributors of fake news – government officials and politicians. Instead of combatting misleading information from politicians, Facebook has been quietly unraveling restrictions on political lies. In 2018, an update to Facebook’s misinformation policy for ads omits the requirement for ads from politicians to be fact-checked by third party. This position on fake news is a far cry from the substantive action society must take against misinformation in the era of COVID-19.

The COVID-19 pandemic is likely to press on in the coming months. If social media platforms want to contribute to flattening the curve, rather than extending the spread of coronavirus, tech giants like Facebook and Twitter need to take significant strides in developing a system that can engage in meaningful content regulation.

Fake news is no longer a problem that platforms can bury under  PR speech and abstract commitments. Perhaps at one point, the damages caused by falsified political fact were implicit enough to be ignored. But, when fake news blurs the line between politics and public health, it becomes a problem that can no longer be buried under meaningless company initiatives. The time to take a firm stance against the harm fake news poses to society is now.

About Theodore Weng

Theodore Weng
Theodore (Teddy) Weng is a rising sophomore at the University of Pennsylvania studying Business Economics and Public Policy and Legal Studies and History. He is from Cincinnati, Ohio. He can be reached at tweng@wharton.upenn.edu.

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