Having spent much of this last year confined to our houses, a lot of us have turned to the boundlessness of social media. The internet offers a chaotic freedom — we can engage with people all around the world, jump into any debate on Twitter, judge the loungewear of strangers on Instagram. But with more of our attention directed online, many feel the chaos is fast outweighing the freedom. Social networks are struggling to contain a pandemic of their own — misinformation. Highly contagious and sometimes fatal, there is mounting demand for an online revival.
Conspiracy theories have always thrived on the internet. Think 9/11, the Mandela effect, Avril Lavigne’s doppelgänger. That last one turned out to be a satirical invention, a Black Mirror-esque ruse that wanted to expose just how easy it is to be hoodwinked online. A prank which made online conspiracies an object of mockery, it captures how they used to be laughed at. We could briefly indulge in the possibility that something strange was at play before returning to a duller reality where, regrettably, popstar imposters exist only in Barbie movies.
But in 2016, Pizzagate signified how online conspiracies pose a genuine threat, bubbling and spilling over into the real world where they can manifest as violence. Throughout 2020, their destructive potential only swelled. Misinformation has proven to be both a public health risk and a threat to democracy, with fake news surrounding and complicating the coronavirus pandemic and the US election, two of the defining events of last year.
5G towers cause Covid-19. Coronavirus is a hoax, or a ‘plandemic’. The vaccine is a smokescreen for microchipping. These are just some of the Covid conspiracies that took hold on social media, preying on widespread fear and jeopardising lives in the process. Meanwhile, having long ago weaponised 240 characters, Donald Trump was repeatedly tweeting baseless claims about the legitimacy of postal ballots. After Joe Biden’s victory in November, claims of fraud grew louder and more aggressive, culminating in the riot at the Capitol which resulted in five deaths. Only then was his Twitter account suspended. Since the damage had already been done, his ban was the epitome of shutting the stable door after the horse had bolted.
But how can the misinformation crisis be tackled? Germany has offered a solution in the form of a contentious law. In 2017, way ahead of the curve, it introduced the Network Enforcement Art, or NetzDG, aimed at combating fake news and hate speech. This requires social networks to delete “obviously illegal” content within 24 hours, and “illegal” content within 7 days, or face fines of up to €50 million. It’s an interesting attempt to police what can often seem like a lawless land, but should private companies really be responsible for making rash decisions on what qualifies as lawful speech? As this article puts it, “faced with short review periods and the risk of steep fines, companies have little incentive to err on the side of free expression.”
A 2020 report published by the Forum for Information and Democracy made recommendations to 38 countries considering social media regulation, including the UK. Suggestions included displaying a correction to every person who was exposed to misinformation, introducing “circuit breakers” so that newly viral content is halted while it is fact-checked, and forcing networks to disclose why content is being recommended to the user.
When it comes to Covid-19, in line with that first recommendation, ‘false information’ banners have been implemented by social networks, in an unprecedented misinformation crackdown. But a survey ran by the Center for an Informed Public at the University of Washington discovered that only 4.2% of participants learned something was false because the social media platform had labelled it as such, with the majority preferring to fact-check using web searches and trusted sources. Some participants even resented the measure: “I was irritated because it is another in a long list of ‘tools’ to ‘protect’ users. In my opinion, this label assumes people are morons and unable to discern what’s true, false and/or misleading”. This is another question that must be juggled when debating social media regulation: to what extent should users be trusted to make their own judgements?
Social media regulation in any form will always be controversial — the most common worry is that it risks compromising free speech. In an interview with BBC news, Christopher Wylie (Cambridge Analytica whistleblower and contributor to the 2020 report) responded well to this: “You are free to say what you want, within the confines of hate speech, libel law and so on. But you are not entitled to have your voice artificially amplified by technology.” Nevertheless, concerns about censorship are valid, since the debate ultimately descends into complex philosophical discourse about how we can define and measure ‘facts’.
Social networks were designed to unite the world, but it is easy to view them as doing just as much to divide and rupture. This past year has injected a sense of urgency into the conversation surrounding social media regulation. Fighting misinformation while maintaining freedom of expression is a tricky tightrope to walk, but there can be no doubt the digital landscape is changing. With Big Tech companies intervening more to control online spaces, and growing clamour to hold them accountable, social networks are mutating. The global interconnectivity enabled by these platforms is remarkable: let's not forget that, in 2020, social media went from a sideline to a lifeline almost overnight, and became a site of surging online activism. Hopefully, as methods to control misinformation are tested and trialled, the triumphs of social media will take centre stage once more.
Written by Rebecca Norris. Edited by Aada Orava and Robert Fletcher.
The views and opinions presented in this article belong to Rebecca Norris — not TEDxWarwick.
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