Social media’s misinformation battle: No winners, so far
NEW YORK — Facebook and other social platforms have been fighting online misinformation and hate speech for two years. With the U.S. midterm elections just a few days away, there are signs that they’re making some headway, although they’re still a very long way from winning the war.
That’s because the effort risks running into political headwinds that Facebook, Twitter and Google find bad for business. Some even argue that the social networks are easy to flood with disinformation by design — an unintended consequence of their eagerness to cater to advertisers by categorizing the interests of their users.
Caught embarrassingly off-guard after they were played by Russian agents meddling with the 2016 U.S. elections, the technology giants have thrown millions of dollars, tens of thousands of people and what they say are their best technical efforts into fighting fake news, propaganda and hate that has proliferated on their digital platforms.
Facebook, in particular, has pulled a major reversal since late 2016, when CEO Mark Zuckerberg infamously dismissed the idea that fake news on his service could have swayed the election as “pretty crazy.” In July, for instance, the company announced that heavy spending on security and content moderation, coupled with other business shifts, would hold down growth and profitability. Investors immediately panicked and knocked $119 billion off the company’s market value. The social network has started to see some payoff for its efforts. A research collaboration between New York University and Stanford recently found that user “interactions” with fake news stories on Facebook, which rose substantially in 2016 during the presidential campaign, fell significantly between the end of 2016 and July 2018. On Twitter, however, the sharing of such stories continued to rise over the past two years.
A similar measure from the University of Michigan’s Center for Social Media Responsibility dubbed the “Iffy Quotient “— which gauges the prevalence of “iffy” material on social networks — also shows that Facebook’s “iffiness” has fallen from a high of 8.1 percent 1n March 2017 to 3.2 percent on Monday. Twitter iffiness has also fallen slightly, from 5.6% in November 2016, to 4.2 percent on Monday.
Even at these levels, fake news remains huge and may be spreading to new audiences. A team led by Philip Howard, the lead researcher on Oxford’s Computational Propaganda effort, looked at stories shared on Twitter during the last 10 days of September 2018 and found that what it called “junk news” accounted for a full quarter of all links shared during that time — greater than the number of professional news stories shared during that time.