How Big Tech failed to stop misinformation in 2020

The hottest memes of 2020! The most viral videos of the year! The hottest hashtags!

The year-in-review lists from Facebook, YouTube, and Twitter were missing the biggest story of the year: their failure to stop the spread of misinformation.

The QAnon conspiracy theory found a shocking amount of mainstream support. Black Lives Matter protests were exploited to spread lies about violence coming to Small Town, USA. And officials had to fight destructive wildfires and false stories about antifascists at the same time.

And, of course, there was the misinformation superspreader event: the COVID-19 pandemic.

The consequences have been dire. But we don’t have to let it continue in 2021.

Misinformation epidemic
The 2016 U.S. presidential election gave social media platforms a powerful taste of what bad actors could do when weaponizing the tools they created.

Yet, the companies were still hesitant to act. Sure, some nefarious users were banned. But, as long as the content wasn’t illegal or causing immediate, quantifiable harm … why would they take action?

Judging by the timing of some of this year’s biggest misinformation-related policy changes, it seems most of the major social media platforms gave themselves a “deadline” to do something before the 2020 U.S. presidential elections.

Then, in March, the coronavirus pandemic hit the U.S. There were anti-mask demonstrations. People drank bleach. And some people refused to believe COVID-19 is real.

“There was just so much conflicting information about the virus and the fact that everyone had time on their hands [due to lockdowns] to actually look at it all,” explained Gita Johar, a professor at the Columbia Business School. “People were sharing everything just trying to make sense of what was going on.”

In a recently published study, Johar found that people who “feel a sense of exclusion and uncertainty,” perpetually or during an unpredictable time, like a pandemic, are more likely to spread what they see on social media….

BY MATT BINDER 

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