Safeguarding Democracy Against Disinformation
Even before a global pandemic hit, the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists announced that the Doomsday Clock had advanced for the first time ever to 100 seconds before midnight. The Bulletin cited “information warfare” as a “threat multiplier” that is reducing trust and corrupting the information ecosystem needed for democratic debate. Now the World Health Organization is warning of an “infodemic” of widespread conspiracy theories about the coronavirus, and disinformation has already been evident in the lead-up to the 2020 presidential election. Despite a clear and present danger, it is evident that our institutions are not nearly ready—neither for foreign nor domestic disinformation campaigns.
While U.S. intelligence officials have repeatedly warned lawmakers that foreign interference in U.S. elections will continue, the giant platforms that have become the new media gatekeepers—Facebook/Instagram, Twitter, and Google/YouTube—have largely been left to choose their own paths. And though the platforms say
they want to address election disinformation, their own rules are inconsistently applied and underenforced, leaving it to fact-checkers, journalists, and researchers to expose rule breaking as best they can. According to our research with NewsGuard, among outlets that repeatedly share false content, eight of the top 10 most engaged-with sites are running coronavirus stories.
Eight out of the top ten sites promoting false information were found to be running disinformation 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”1
Individual platforms allow disinformation campaigns to leverage “dark patterns,” or manipulative user interfaces, to deceive users. This opaque design makes it easy to like and share a planted story, but hard to verify a faked video.2 Disinformation campaigns thereby overwhelm the “signal” of actual news with “noise,” eroding the trust in news necessary for democracy to work. The tools of disinformation campaigners include:
Trojan horse outlets that deceive users about the source of disinformation by disguising themselves as independent journalism while eschewing its practices (for example, bylines, mastheads, verification, corrections, community service principles) and leveraging platform design to boost conspiracies. Meanwhile, real news generation atrophies because platforms have absorbed the revenue of local independent journalism.
Spending on personalized political propaganda—which is likely to top $1 billion in 2020, three times such spending in 2016—obscures the true sponsors of online ads from the public.3 The platforms each have different and weak procedures for labeling and how much targeting they allow for political ads. Both Google and Facebook’s ad libraries malfunctioned, failing to provide real disclosure in the days before the last U.K. election.
Networks of “amplifiers” flood the zone with disinformation. Fake accounts, influencers, and true believers game algorithmic recommendations to fill trending lists and search engines with visual memes or video.
Digital Astro-turf campaigns that look like organic grassroots movements use secret groups, encrypted messaging, and fringe sites linking to the main platforms to target vulnerable populations through disinformation and harassment.
Platform black box moderation that applies rules inconsistently and without transparency, create loopholes for cross-platform disinformation operations. The self-regulatory model of negotiations with civil society appears broken; civil rights groups working on an audit have protested the platforms’ lack of cooperation.
Too often, the only alternative proposed to today’s laissez-faire approach would increase government control over content. This false choice—between allowing platforms or government to act as censor—has hobbled the policy debate. A new approach should empower users. Our approach is rooted in an understanding that digital information platforms are our new media gatekeepers yet have none of the obligations developed over time for our old gatekeepers: obligations to minimize user manipulation, boost public interest journalism, and promote democratic debate.
The new digital media policy roadmap we layout would steer clear of vague rules that empower governments to define “good” or “bad” content and would instead focus on updating offline protections, fostering user choice, amplifying the signal of independent news, supporting civic information, and holding platforms accountable for shared, unambiguous, and transparent rules. This policy package—tailored with input from stakeholders and sufficiently agile to account for evolving technology—would close the loopholes that allow bad actors to engage in online information warfare using the largest platforms, and it would do so without restricting free expression or stymieing innovation.