Social media weaponising misinformation
A new survey has found two thirds of Kiwis are worried about the extent of misinformation being peddled online. Is it time for Parliament to stop pretending deliberate and provably wrong disinformation is legitimate free speech and instead recognise it as harmful and take action against it? An MP from each side of the House gives their views.
Social media has supercharged our access to information, whether it’s highly localised through a community Facebook group or the instantaneous spread of global news through Twitter.
But the network is threatened by unreliable information. While most is spread unknowingly, some is spread on purpose to mislead, subvert and destabilise certain communities.
Like my friends in South Auckland, my social feeds were inundated with videos of Ma¯ori and Pasifika people with spoons stuck to their skin last year.
The first video claimed magnetic skin was a reaction caused by vaccinations. There is no such side effect, but the videos continued to do the rounds within my community.
Propaganda like this is not new. What is different is how social network algorithms can weaponise misinformation to continuously bombard us, based on what our peers like and interact with.
Within a global health pandemic, people need to have access to accurate and reliable information at all times.
In its report The Edge of the Infodemic, the Classification Office found that
82 per cent of New Zealanders were worried about how commonly people were being exposed to misinformation, and felt that those levels of exposure were increasingly impacting on people’s views.
Most of them also want action taken on this, although there is less consensus on how that should be achieved: whether it is by Government or by social media entities, among other solutions.
Major social media companies, such as Facebook, Twitter and YouTube, have all taken steps to stem the tide of misinformation but there’s still a need to do better.
We must look at the toolswe have in front of us. Several Government departments and agencies are working hard to manage and address the flow of misinformation.
The Classification Office has some oversight in this space when it comes to ‘‘publications’’, but that term has an obscure legal definition that can be difficult to define. Enforcement of Classification Office decisions falls to the Department of Internal Affairs and the police. The Electoral Commission can act, but only on information about enrolling and voting.
They’re all focused on protecting wha¯nau and communities and equally committed to tackling the misinformation that exists, and it’s clear that to continue our work to protect lives and livelihoods we must continue to fight misinformation.
In retrospect, it was inevitable that with the rise of technology, the internet and social media, there would be consequences to the way news and information is spread.
Some are positive: we can easily access thousands of news sources from all over the world and virtually endless amounts of information on any topicwith a quick search on the internet.
That can come at a cost though, so misinformation is ripe on the internet. However, if Parliament ever steps in with laws to deter it, we will need to act with some caution. In 1633, Galileo Galilei was placed under arrest for heresy by Pope Urban XII for actively promoting Copernicus’s theory that the earth orbited the sun. Copernicus’s theory is known now as simple fact, but in the 17th century it was declared misinformation and Galileo was punished by spending the rest of his life under house arrest. How much did Galileo’s house arrest hold back the advancement of science? Quite a lot I suspect, and all in the name of protecting a political position. We cannot allow the same to happen here.
We need to be very careful how we treat misinformation in today’s world, social media giants Facebook and Instagram have warnings on any posts which contain information on Covid-19 and vaccines so that people are aware there could be misinformation.
What recourse do we have if a social media post is inappropriately deemed misinformation? It turns out to be incredibly difficult and unfair as algorithms identify the supposed breach and getting it overturned is a slow and uncertain process.
Who determines what misinformation is? Your view and mine might be completely different. It is dangerous territory to allow a politician to be the source of truth, this has had disastrous consequences through history. Despots such as Hitler, Stalin, and Mao all controlled their so-called ‘truth’.
New Zealanders have the right to express their views and others can decide for themselves if they want to accept them or not. Free speech is one of the greatest freedoms we have in western democracies, and any move to limit it should be vigorously opposed. Those that are calling the loudest for silencing contrary views clearly lack confidence in the strength of their argument, and think that silencing others is their only option.
It is neither free nor fair to attempt to protect people from misinformation by unduly censoring free speech. We should learn from history and avoid silencing a modern day Galileo.