This week’s cover story in the The Economist – ‘Social media’s threat to democracy’ – argues that rather than enlightening citizens, social media platforms are reinforcing people’s biases and eroding the opportunity for bipartisanship.
The article references the admissions of Facebook, YouTube and Twitter of the mass circulation of Russian untruths across their platforms during the last US federal election, which highlight serious issues regarding content control.
The Economist article puts forward a few solutions to combat the spread of ‘fake news’ across social media, one of which is the use of a kind of verification system that lets users know when a post comes from a friend or trusted source, along with disclaimers on the harm of misinformation.
However, with other news items like The Guardian’s story on the Paradise Papers revealing Kremlin-backed investments in both Facebook and Twitter, it’s easy to question whether self-policing is the best solution to ensuring that proliferation of falsehoods and misinformation is minimised.
Moreover, other recent events highlight the difficulty in trusting social media platforms alone to regulate content and, to enforce even their own moderation policies. For instance, when claims of Harvey Weinstein’s alleged widespread sexual harassment in Hollywood were first made, one of the biggest voices in exposing the abuse was actress Rose McGowan, who had her Twitter profile temporarily disabled for telling Ben Affleck to ‘f**k off’.
To quote another commentator from The Guardian, social media has become a ‘weaponised populist media’ while not being held accountable to the same legal standards as a publisher. Calling for verification systems and content disclaimers as The Economist article proposes is a start, but it’s pretty clear we need more than just self-regulation.