Platforms should be incentivised to comply with online regulation and tackle the scale of misinformation circulating on platforms, a debate on fake news has heard.
Governments can only tackle misinformation if discussion of the risks it poses and its prevalence becomes part of the mainstream conversation, reports Mariella Brown.
Experts on the Tortoise G7bn Summit on global leadership also shared innovative methods used to incentivise citizens to denounce fake news they interact with, including Taiwan’s digital minister who has empowered citizens to “vaccinate the rumour” by circulating myth-busting memes on social platforms.
The panel, held online yesterday, focused on the question of how do we hold misinformation to account and heard from Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales; Taiwan’s digital minister Audrey Tang; Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Anne Applebaum and former senior US diplomat Farah Pandith.
Pandith, who has authored a book on preventing the spread of extremist ideologies, told the debate that incentives are crucial to making social media companies engage with the harm posed by misinformation.
“These dances around the edges are not going to get us where we need to be. We’ve got to go all in, we’ve got to scale things up and the only way to do that is to give them incentives where they’re going to do it the way any other business would do it.”
Pandith added, “To be fair to them, they have put some money into this idea of misinformation and what we can do better… but the scale’s not there.”
Measures taken by social media platforms during the pandemic include a $1m grant programme with the International Fact-Checking Network and the launch of Facebook’s Covid-19 Information Centre on the platform’s newsfeed. Any users who have interacted with a post that could contribute to ‘imminent physical harm’ will see a notification directing them to a correction by the World Health Organisation.
But it is thought that nearly half of the UK (46%) saw misinformation surrounding Covid-19 in week one of the March lockdown, according to Ofcom.
A wide-reaching approach is needed to fully tackle fake news: Pandith urged listeners to push the conversation into the mainstream – not limited to Wired magazine or related tech magazines – so the “real world effects of what is happening” as a result of misinformation is apparent to individuals.
The debate established two methods based on incentivisation used by companies and governments to successfully tackle fake news.
Firstly, Jimmy Wales’ Wikipedia contributors are intent on upholding their reputations as responsible sources of information within its community. The Wiki founder said “you won’t find 5G conspiracy theories on Wikipedia… they’d simply be deleted”.
Speaking of his business model which relies on donations rather than advertising, he told listeners, “We have to make sure people love Wikipedia, they care about it, and they cherish it – not that they are tempted to click as many times as possible”.
His contributors strive to be valued as purveyors of quality information. “It’s about reputation, people caring, having a stable identity [online]”, he added.
On the other hand, Taiwan’s digital minister explained her country’s collaborative approach which relies upon virality and humour to rebuff fake news in its earliest forms.
“The idea is that just as we fight a pandemic very successfully eliminating [cases] for a few months now with no lockdown; we fight an infodemic with no takedowns, no administrative takedowns,” Audrey Tang said.
“The key insight here is that the social sector will empower the crowd to do this collective intelligence and detect a trending rumour far before it actually goes to the advertisement page/ social media when it is still in end-to-end encrypted channels. [In response to the rumour] the public authorities basically roll out funny dog memes…”.
Tang’s “humour over rumour” approach incentivises citizens to flag up any fake news they have received in chat messages to the authorities, who work with fact-checking organisations to release a meme antidote to the fake news story within hours.
The UK has taken small steps in approaching this issue with the creation of fact-checking site Infotagion which clarifies fake news circulating online via myth-busting posts and is spearheaded by former DCMS Committee Chair Damian Collins MP.
Meanwhile, the government is also exploring hard legislation in the form of its Online Harms Bill, which has seen a continued campaign from the Society of Editors to ensure news media is exempt from legislation which could limit reporting on matters of public debate.
While the collective intelligence approach has been a success for the Taiwanese authorities, such incentives are far away for the UK and US.
Digital minister Tang was keen to emphasise there had been no need for “administrative takedown” of posts; however Wiki’s Jimmy Wales argued that we need to recognise that “a social media site is definitely not a newspaper, it’s a place where ordinary people can come and say what they think.”
Models for social media are click-based and rely on temptation to encourage the reader to engage with the content. Taiwan inoculates any temptation to engage with enticing conspiracy theories by superseding its power with humour: “funny dog memes” become more engaging than the original conspiracy.
While incentivising individuals is a matter of human psychology, the question of how to incentivise designers of algorithms to create a social media space that favours “literate debate” is a deeper structural conundrum, which journalist Anne Applebaum grappled with throughout the discussion.
“How do we create an internet … in which these kind of theories spread less quickly and aren’t favoured by the algorithms?”
The ultimate question is not just about incentivising citizens or social media platforms to examine their practices – but considering a complete structural makeover of the internet.
“How we restore that age-old link between reputation and responsibility?” was the concluding question which moderator of the debate, Tortoise founder James Harding rested upon.
To take Wikipedia as an example, Wales’ donation-model organisation works on the basis that his contributors gain a reputation for trustworthiness that is built up over time.
Earlier in the debate, Wales inferred that the “public is ready” for other non-advertising based business models – for journalism, social media companies – that are worth exploring even further than in their current forms (he cites New York Times and Tortoise among these “new” models).
“Let’s throw aside some old business models that aren’t working,” he said.
Extrapolating Wales’ point, if social media giants’ business models were to forced switch from click-based advertising to donation funding tomorrow, to preserve their reputations the social media giants would have to act responsibly.
But until the model changes, there appears to be no incentive for them to do so.