At a glance.
- The public perception of misinformation as a threat.
- Two journalists receive the Nobel Peace Prize.
- Facebook under fire, and Big Tech's "tobacco moment."
- Update on the IMF and the World Bank's assessment controversy.
- Observers see a surge in anti-Semitic conspiracy theories online.
The spread of misinformation as a perceived threat.
A Pearson Institute/AP-NORC poll finds that "Ninety-five percent of Americans believe the spread of misinformation is a problem, and most blame social media companies, social media users, and U.S. politicians for its spread." That figure includes eighty-one percent who think it's a "major problem." Ninety-one percent blame social media companies for the problem, with slightly more, ninety-three percent, disposed to blame social media users as opposed to their platforms. Do they blame themselves? Not really. Only twenty percent think that they themselves have spread misinformation, which is about the rate of informed self-examination one would expect.
Presenters at a Pearson Institute online conference this week provided some interesting context. One dismissed claims of effective, targeted influence as largely "snake oil" pushed by organizations like the now-defunct Cambridge Analytica. They also cautioned against crediting online misinformation with much persuasive power. The people most likely to be influenced are the already persuaded, not the unconvinced.
Nobel Peace Prize goes to two gadfly journalists.
The Nobel Committee last Friday announced that two journalists, Maria Ressa (of the Rappler, in the Philippines), and Dmitry Muratov (of Novaya Gazeta, in Russia) would be awarded this year's Peace Prize. The Washington Post describes both journalists' critical engagement with their respective governments. Both, and especially Mr. Muratov, have worked at considerable personal risk. Congratulations to them. The courage of both laureates seems indisputable.
Some (see, for example, this op-ed in the Philadelphia Inquirer) have seen the award as a call to greater activism on the part of journalists. How that would comport with the call for greater attention to truth in reporting, and how activism would restore flagging public trust in journalism (both of which the Inquirer's op-ed commends) isn't entirely clear. Activism isn't inconsistent with either truth or trust, but it would seem at times to be in tension with them. In any case, congratulations to both Ms Ressa and Mr. Muratov.
Facebook continues to receive criticism for its role in the dissemination of mis- and disinformation. The Rappler's Maria Resser has criticized the social network, which is a principal source of news in the Philippines and elsewhere, for not doing more to vet the stories that pass across it. And Frances Haughen, the Facebook wistleblower who testified before a US Senate subcommittee last week, framed the social network's impact in ways that lent themselves to a public health interpretation of Facebook's effect on its users. Younger users in particular, are harmed by Facebook's algorithmic pursuit of engagement, and the New York Times described bipartisan approval for treating her testimony as what Senator Blumenthal (Democrat of Connecticut) characterized as Big Tech's "tobacco moment."
There seem in truth to be two regulatory strains here. One runs in an anti-trust direction, with Big Tech companies seen as having established themselves in positions that make effective competition impossible, lending them disproportionate influence over what can be said and done online. The other is reminiscent of Twentieth-Century concerns over the effects of film, comic books, television, and music, all of which come under regular criticism for turning their corners of popular culture into (critics hold) an intellectually vacuous moral sewer. Which of these two strains, if either, will have effect against Facebook is unclear, but if you bet on form, bet on anti-monopoly enforcement. Concern about harm to users and consumers has historically resulted in such self-regulation as MPAA ratings for films and the formerly influential Comics Code. (And in any case the etiology of lung cancer was inherently easier to determine than it will be to conclusively link teenage psychological disorders to social media.)
Facebook itself announced, according to Deadline, that it intends to move in the direction of what spokesman Nick Clegg described as “more friends, less politics.” He also said that the company intended to work to address ways in which Instagram has been seen as harmful to younger users. “But we understand the concerns of some that we need to press pause, listen to experts, explain our intentions and so on,” he said. “We’re going to introduce new controls for adults [presumably adult parents and guardians] of teens on an optional basis, obviously, so adults can supervise what their teens are doing online. Secondly, we’ll be doing something which I think will make a considerable difference, which is where the teen is looking at the same content over and over again, and its content which may not be conducive so their well-being, we’ll nudge them to look at other content,” Clegg said of Instagram in particular.
Update: the IMF, the World Bank, and reliable public assessments.
We saw last week, in World Politics Review, an account of sees a threat to the information necessary to sound decisions and, inter alia, to countering mis- and disinformation: the temptation international institutions face to cook the books in the service of one political bias or another. The Review's case in point is a controversy at the International Monetary Fund, whose current managing director, Kristalina Georgieva, has been accused of stands accused of pressuring World Bank staffers (she has some influence there by virtue of her position at the IMF and by her previous work at the Bank) to upgrade (beyond what it deserved) China's position in annual rankings of countries' business climate in the World Bank's annual Doing Business Report. Ms Georgieva has denied any wrongdoing in the matter. The World Bank suspended publication of the rankings report over the controversy. This week the IMF expressed its "full confidence" in Ms Georgieva, the AP reports, and so she will retain her post.
Old conspiracy theories revived for current events.
It should surprise no one that fear of COVID-19 and mistrust of public health officials has found expression in an old conspiracy theory. MIT Technology Review describes a study by the advocacy group Hope not Hate which discerns a rising anti-Semitic theme in communication by and among lockdown resisters and vaccine skeptics. The study found rising anti-Semitism on all nine of the platforms it looked at (including TikTok, Instagram, Twitter, and YouTube), but according to WIRED, it's especially common on Telegram. In terms of longevity alone, the notorious Protocols of the Elders of Zion remains the most tragically successful piece of disinformation ever published (handed on through too many operators to count).