Don’t let 2018 midterms elections fool you. Although fake news and misinformation did not appear to have a major impact on the outcome, manipulation on social media is worse than ever.
Facebook and Twitter went on a public relations crusade in the midterms runup, touting new “war room” initiatives, to fend off growing criticism that they are ill-prepared to deal with the festering issue.
The companies deployed thousands of employees to monitor news feeds and advertisements, deleted many suspicious accounts, and uncovered new foreign plots. It appears their solution was reasonably successful … this time.
But here’s the problem. This strategy, which can be boiled down to a game of Whac-A-Mole, is unsustainable and unscalable.
Social media, in particular Facebook and its products WhatsApp and Instagram, have reached nearly every corner of the world. Elections, high-profile crimes, and other major events happen daily, and the battle for public opinion is being waged in many different languages across multiple platforms.
Look at places such as India, Myanmar or Mexico. Malign actors are taking cues from Russia’s 2016 masterstroke and are adapting to local conditions. Yet unlike many Western nations, countries such as these have weak institutions and lack safeguards. When manipulation strikes there, it’s not just a matter of who gets into office. Violence and genocide increasingly are the result.
Is it realistic to think these companies can be in a constant “state of war” everywhere in the world? The answer is no.
There is no viable way for these companies to repeat their recent “success” around the globe. The fact is that there are too many users and too much content to regulate, and activity is growing exponentially.
What is to be done? Instead of trying to police the social media landscape, we should try to compel users to take ownership of what they say.
The ease with which social media accounts are created is a glaring problem. Anonymity, coupled with the powerful voice these platforms give users, has fueled our worst inclinations. Hidden identities sidestep the natural social check, and in such an environment disinformation and hate speech can flourish with no consequence or repercussion.
A policy of universal verification would go a long way in solving this.
Verifying one’s identity should be the cost of admission to these powerful and potentially dangerous tools. As a single requirement, an email or phone number is simply too easy to cloak. Each account needs to have a firm connection to an individual via employment, school, or other verifiable activity.
A social media environment with universal verification would be one of elevated accountability. Fake news and misinformation could be tracked to its source, and individuals held responsible could be temporarily or permanently suspended with no hope of opening alternative accounts.
The more complex issue is moderating free speech. Current events have pushed the line of acceptable speech further away from the values which democratic societies are built upon. This is an insidious problem, and corporations should not become the authority on what constitutes free speech.
Universal verification would in no way mute the ugly voices in our society, but it would pressure most to be held accountable for the views they publicly disseminate. The aim is not to silence those who hold different views but to have all views be exposed to open debate.
This process would also enable the platforms to segregate content on several different levels. This could empower parents, for example, to restrict children’s feeds to age-appropriate material, making “ugly” speech an adult-only sphere.
Universal verification would not be an easy or inexpensive solution. It would take considerable resources to sift through existing accounts, and a new regime undoubtedly would stunt new user growth in the short term.
But in the end, this strategy might be a long-term boon to the bottom line. All the costs would be up front and maintenance would fall over time, because there would be little need to amass “armies” for every important event. The quality of the information collected on a more stable and verified network of users would be much higher and, consequently, more valuable.
Also, no one wants regulation. If the companies proceed with their Whac-A-Mole approach, it seems inevitable that crises will multiply, and governments will be compelled to step in.
The often touted slogan “making the world more open and connected” is certainly desirable, but if social media companies continue to allow rampant anonymous abuse on their platforms, this idealistic vision of our digital world will collapse.
Paul Hidalgo is a messaging strategist for a U.S. Department of Defense contractor. His teams have successfully disrupted the propaganda efforts of state-sponsored malign actors and extremist groups. He also oversees production of online news content for foreign audiences, creating targeted advertising and social media campaigns.