New Report: U.S. Information Ecosystem Woefully Unprepared Amidst Coronavirus and 2020 Election Disinformation
Analysis Finds 8 out of Top 10 False News Outlets Are Pushing Misleading Coronavirus-Related Stories
Washington, DC (March 25, 2020)— The flood of misleading and false stories surrounding Coronavirus is only the latest indication that the U.S. information ecosystem is still dangerously exposed and unprepared to handle the spread of disinformation online, warns a new report published today by the German Marshall Fund’s Digital Innovation and Democracy Initiative.
The report—co-authored by Karen Kornbluh, Director of DIDI and former OECD Ambassador, and Ellen P. Goodman, Professor and Co-Director of the Rutgers Institute for Information Policy & Law and a DIDI Senior Fellow—creates a roadmap for both immediate policy actions and cross-sector collaboration that will lead to a stronger, more transparent information ecosystem.
The paper lays out the arsenal of tactics that bad actors are using to sow distrust and confusion, including “trojan horse” outlets—partisan and conspiracy websites that disguise disinformation as real news to deceive users.
A German Marshall Fund analysis of the top ten outlets categorized by Newsguard as repeatedly sharing false content found that overall user interaction with these sites has not only increased since 2016; but that 8 out of 10 of these unreliable outlets are currently pushing misleading or outright false articles about coronavirus, with headlines such as “STUDY: 26 Chinese Herbs Have a ‘High Probability’ of Preventing Coronavirus Infection” and “Why coronavirus is a punishment from God that should lead to repentance.”
In addition to these “trojan horse” outlets—four other main tools and tactics are being used to erode trust and sow confusion:
- Digital Astro-Turf: Secret groups that simulate grassroots support are being increasingly weaponized to incubate conspiracy theories and undermine trust in institutions
- Flooding the Zone:Armies of domestic warriors—not just Russian trolls and ads—are flooding the news cycle with fakes, memes, and rumors
- Personalized Propaganda: In the 2020 elections, over $1.6 billion is likely to be spent on micro-targeted ads—three times more than during the 2016 elections
- Platform Moderation Black Box: Secret, inconsistent algorithmic recommendations and moderation decisions create loopholes for cross-platform disinformation campaigns
According to the report authors, a new policy response is urgently needed to supplement disparate platform-driven responses, which they describe as inconsistent, under-enforced, andleaving it to fact-checkers, journalists, and researchers to call out bad behavior.
“The coronavirus shows us the danger of a weakened information ecosystem to our public health—just as disinformation in 2016 showed the danger to democracy. After working on Internet policy since its early days, it’s clear that reform is needed to stop the manipulation of users,” said Kornbluh. “Our approach rejects the false choice between leaving it to the platforms to fix or giving the government a greater role in controlling speech. Researchers and stakeholders are invited to join us in building solutions that would empower users instead.”
“The report details how we can boost the ‘signal’ of journalism and dampen the ‘noise’ of disinformation,” added Goodman, who authored a recent Knight Columbia First Amendment Institute study on the subject. “Tailored solutions can improve information fidelity by adding healthy friction into the system to slow the spread of harmful lies and create more demand for credible information.”
Kornbluh and Goodman outline the new media policy architecture consisting of three essential planks:
- Empower users by:
- Eliminating deceptive user design, or “dark patterns,”and substitute instead light patterns: interfaces providing greater transparency and helpful frictions (not unlike “social distancing”) to slow the spread of conspiracy theories
- Creating more transparency in micro-targeted ads, including Know Your Customer requirements, akin to those applied to financial institutions, that require platforms to reveal sources of dark money donations
- Updating offline rights to protect users online, including civil rights, consumer protections, privacy rights
- Build public civic architecture by creating a “Superfund”-like tax on platforms’ online ad revenue to fund a “PBS of the Internet” for noncommercial public interest journalism, local civic information, fact checkers, voting information, and media literacy
- Increase platform accountability through radical disclosure, allowing users to use their data with other platforms, and an enforceable code of conduct agreed by civil society and industry
Ambassador Karen Kornbluh is the director of GMF’s Digital Innovation and Democracy Initiative and a veteran tech policy advisor who was involved in the creation of the initial legal framework that governs the Internet today. As ambassador to the OECD in the Obama administration—where she spearheaded the first global Internet Policymaking Principle—a senior official at the FCC and then the U.S. Treasury Department in the Clinton administration, she advised on key components of the emerging Internet policy framework.
Ellen P. Goodman is a Rutgers Law School professor and co-directs the Rutgers Institute for Information Policy & Law (RIIPL). She is currently working on grants relating to algorithmic transparency, smart city ethics, and digital speech platforms, and has served in the Obama administration as a Distinguished Visiting Scholar with the Federal Communications Commission. She has been the recipient of Ford Foundation and Geraldine R. Dodge grants for work on advancing new public media models and public interest journalism.
“Safeguarding Digital Democracy” is published online today. Media looking to connect with the report authors, or for more on the work of the German Marshall Fund’s Digital Innovation and Democracy program, please reach out to Sydney Simon ([email protected]).
About the German Marshall Fund of the United States:
The German Marshall Fund of the United States (GMF) is the leading organization dedicated to deepening transatlantic ties by shaping the policy conversation, strengthening civil society, and developing leaders. Headquartered in Washington, DC, GMF’s office network includes Berlin, Brussels, Paris, Warsaw, Ankara, Belgrade, and Bucharest. Established in 1972 with a gift from Germany to thank Americans for Marshall Plan assistance, GMF champions human rights, democracy, and rule of law – the values that make the transatlantic relationship a vital force for global good. Karen Donfried is the president of the German Marshall Fund.
Public interactions were measured for the German Marshall Fund by media intelligence company Newswhip on Facebook and Twitter. Ratings were provided by NewsGuard, which employs a team of journalists and editors to review and rate news and information websites based on nine journalistic criteria. The criteria assess basic practices of credibility and transparency. In this instance, the outlets failed the criterion “does not repeatedly publish false content.”