In the early hours of the Wednesday after Election Day, as President Donald Trump inaccurately claimed victory in several states and leveled charges that his opponents were "trying to steal the election," Twitter took the kind of action against disinformation that many had been urging for years. It labeled and obscured tweets, prevented retweets and likes, and stopped recommending false content. Facebook also applied labels to similar posts and shut down a "Stop the Steal" Facebook group organized around armed opposition to made-up voter fraud that had started accumulating new members at the unprecedented rate of 242 per minute. There has been plenty of misinformation before and after the election. Facebook posts falsely asserting that thousands of dead Pennsylvanians were voting reached up to 11.3 million people, and Spanish-language disinformation may have played a substantial role in Florida results. At the same time, the platforms did adopt and enforce election integrity procedures, showing they could at least sometimes put out disinformation flares before they blazed out of control.
Buildings are engulfed in flames as a wildfire ravages Talent, Ore., on Sept. 8, 2020. Unfounded rumors that left-wing activists were behind the fires went viral on social media, thanks to amplification by conspiracy theorists and the platforms' own design. Buildings are engulfed in flames as a wildfire ravages Talent, Ore., on Sept. 8, 2020. Unfounded rumors that left-wing activists were behind the fires went viral on social media, thanks to amplification by conspiracy theorists and the platforms' own design. Critics of Facebook and Twitter -- and even some people inside the companies -- say dramatic action is needed to counter the way the platforms supercharge false, and sometimes dangerous, claims.
Facebook is reportedly piloting a new way to check viral posts for misinformation before they spread too far, The Interface reports. The method is a kind of "virality circuit breaker" that slows the spread of content before moderators have a chance to review it for misinformation. In a recent report, the Center for American Progress (CAP) recommended virality circuit breakers, which automatically stop algorithms from amplifying posts when views and shares are skyrocketing. Theoretically, that gives content moderators time to review the posts. According to The Interface, Facebook says it's piloting an approach that resembles a virality circuit breaker, and it plans to roll it out soon.
In his first UK broadcast interview for five years, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg said that the company has "learnt a lot about how politics works online" since 2016. The company was infamously criticised for its use as a platform by Russian-linked agents, who shared Facebook posts with 126 million Americans in an attempt to swing the election for now-President Donald Trump. One of the links was the Kremlin-directed Internet Research Agency (IRA) which, between 2015 and 2017, flooded social media with "false reports, conspiracy theories, and trolls." "One big area that we were behind on in 2016 but I think now are quite advanced at is identifying and fighting these co-ordinated information campaigns that come from different state actors around the world," Zuckerberg said. "I feel pretty confident that we are going to be able to protect the integrity of the upcoming election."
For years we've been using the phrase "gone viral" to describe something that becomes wildly popular on the internet. But it strikes a different note in the middle of a global pandemic, especially when the viral content is about an actual virus that is killing people. It's even worse when you're talking about "viral" content containing dangerous misinformation and conspiratorial thinking about such a virus--like Plandemic, the documentary that got millions of views on Facebook and YouTube last week before the platforms started removing it. These past few months I've started catching myself whenever I write or speak about something "going viral," searching for another way to put it. A couple of weeks ago, I started wondering whether we should even be using the word in this figurative way at all anymore.