The biggest cyber threat to our democracy is your newsfeed

The biggest cyber threat to our democracy is your newsfeed
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Russia has infiltrated our democracy via social media, and 320 million Americans have become potential, unwitting weapons.

Social media giants know about the problem but have shown little appetite for controlling it. Experts across the cybersecurity spectrum are raising alarm and, by all accounts, are issuing a red alert.

However, we are given little more than cursory explanations for why spreading fake news on social media threatens us and our way of life. Perhaps more importantly, we are not being given the steps we must take to limit its damage.

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Research has shown that we have a 50-percent success rate at detecting fake news. Instead, we rely on our cognitive biases when assessing news on social media. Cognitive biases are automatic and exist to help us simplify the information we encounter in the world, yet they can lead us astray.

 

Facebook's and Twitter’s algorithms serve up information meant to elicit emotional reactions from us. Then, we overlay our own cognitive biases onto the filtered news they provide, thereby creating a second, more insular filter.

This is confirmation bias at play, a tendency to seek out information that confirms our prior beliefs, while disregarding information that contradicts them.

In the Digital Age, social media has changed the speed with which confirmation bias can distort our view of the world. When fake news enters our newsfeed, it exploits our biases by feeding us information we want to be true. The problem is that we believe what we want to believe, regardless of its underlying truth.

If we believe fake news, we read it thoroughly. If we don’t believe it, we disregard it almost as fast as we can process it. We share the fake news we want to believe, sending it out to our like-minded friends on Facebook and Twitter who, in turn, propagate it further and ultimately, it propagates exponentially.

Confirmation bias and our social media bubble interact to create a personalized and distorted echo chamber that, without fact checking, can drift away far from the truth. 

Russia is currently exploiting this by using our biases against us. Russian bots sow discord in our newsfeed by injecting false information, essentially hacking our minds by feeding us information that polarizes us.

Users of Facebook and Twitter often consider themselves “citizen journalists,” yet they do not take the necessary time to source information and ground their opinions in objective truth.

The result is millions of individuals not being able to agree on a shared reality and an electorate that is increasingly ill-informed. Our enemies are seeing this play out with discord that spans the political spectrum. 

So how do we combat the fake news epidemic in the absence of swift and decisive action by Facebook and Twitter? We start with awareness. Confirmation bias is less effective when we know it exists and we approach all news stories with skepticism.

We need to use our Facebook and Twitter accounts responsibly, sharing only the news that we have taken the time to fact check through independent, third-party fact-checkers. We should triangulate our sources of information, seeking information outside of our echo chamber. This is what any responsible journalist does while writing a story. 

Curating the news that we put on our wall will help stem the dissemination of false news. The next time your best friend posts a story from a questionable source, go to a third-party fact-checker and verify it before liking, commenting or sharing it on your wall.

Do not post information you know to be fake, even if you are debunking it. This gives the fake news more views which, in turn, will result in a subset of the population believing it.

Social media has given us the power to disseminate information quickly to our corner of the world and with that comes great responsibility. It is not hyperbole to state that the future of our democracy is at stake.

Randall Minas is the Hon Kau and Alice Lee Faculty fellow and assistant professor in the Information Technology Management Department at the Shidler College of Business at the University of Hawai’i at Manoa.