By Kelly Born
April 29, 2019 at 5:00 am ET
Americans are preparing to launch into another election cycle – and even at this early point in the campaign cycle, they need to be increasingly vigilant about the news they read and see.
In March, Politico found evidence of coordinated disinformation efforts aimed at Sens. Kamala Harris (D-Calif.), Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) and former Rep. Beto O’Rourke (D-Texas). In Warren’s case, a false narrative alleged a blackface doll had appeared in her kitchen during an Instagram livestream.
The biggest headlines have focused on Facebook, but every major technology platform is being exploited. In 2017, Twitter removed almost two-thirds of its user-base for suspected bot-like activity; yet bot detectors still struggle to keep pace with bot producers. Data & Society found that Google’s search engine can surface results that reaffirm people’s pre-existing biases – a huge problem, because people often use search engines for neutral “fact checks” of news they suspect may be biased.
And bad actors are getting bolder: Researchers at Oxford Internet Institute reported that Facebook posts created by the the Internet Research Agency, a known Russian propaganda wing, doubled from 2016 to 2017, while IRA Instagram posts nearly tripled.
At a conference hosted by the Hewlett Foundation near Silicon Valley earlier this month, former Federal Bureau of Investigation Director James Comey warned that Russians will be back to interfere in the U.S. election in 2020. Meanwhile, Matt Masterson, enior cybersecurity advisor at the Department of Homeland Security, warned that the spread of domestic disinformation is perhaps an even bigger challenge, and one that the government isn’t equipped to handle.
Today, we do know more than we did before about the threat of disinformation.
One of the most popular myths around disinformation is that it thrives because most Americans get news and information only through our separate red and blue channels. But Americans’ information diets are actually pretty varied. Both Republicans and Democrats continue to rely on traditional media outlets such as The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal and the major broadcast networks.
Just last month, NYU’s Social Media and Political Participation Lab found a more than 50 percent overlap in internet users’ news diets. Most Americans continue to get news from mainstream sources, despite the best efforts of those who seek to divide us. But mainstream journalists are often the target of coordinated disinformation campaigns, and need to remain especially vigilant to ensure they are not unwitting amplifiers.
Despite most Americans maintaining varied media diets, a relatively concentrated demographic of Americans – white, older conservatives, according to research from Northeastern University – remain especially vulnerable to disinformation campaigns. This group remains the most likely to engage with “fake news,” like stories falsely claiming that the Pope endorsed President Donald Trump. This research helps us understand where consumption of the most egregious cases of truly “fake news” are concentrated – which has important implications for where and how government, technology and the public decide should focus their attention and resources.
We are on the road toward promising interventions, but in order to enact changes that sufficiently protect our democratic process, tech and government decision-makers need to better understand how disinformation campaigns actually work. There’s still a lot more we need to learn about consumption of news that is intentionally extreme, polarizing or misleading but may still contain elements of truth.
And tech giants such as Facebook and Google carry the greatest responsibility to act.
The nonprofit Maplight, in partnership with the Institute for the Future, recently issued a report outlining more than 30 promising proposals to counter digital disinformation – from establishing a global cybersecurity accord to extending campaign finance rules to cover online ads.
YouTube, owned by Google, has pledged action after an investigation found that users clicking on nonpartisan videos were watching extremist content within six clicks. Policymakers, who often lag behind fast-changing technologies, need to get up to speed. And in this era, where governments are gridlocked and tech companies are motivated more by dollars than democratic principles, citizens need to insist that government and technology companies develop standards to support greater transparency and accountability. Without data access, we as a society know very little about what is happening online.
Well-informed voters are the foundation of a healthy democracy. With another presidential election around the corner, it’s up to all of us to work together to ensure Americans get trustworthy information.
Kelly Born is a program officer for the Madison Initiative at the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, an 8-year, $150 million portfolio focused on improving U.S. democracy.
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