Fighting Online Trolls and Interference: What Makes Cens(us)?

In the wake of the 2016 presidential election, day after day articles about “fake news”, “election interference”, and the public messages of political leaders on various social media platforms make “front screen news.”  Facebook and Twitter typically receive the most credit for their close association to the prevalence and rampant spread of mis- and dis- information campaigns. YouTube, Reddit and Instagram also have been identified for being littered with targeted political ads and potentially radicalizing algorithms. 

Mark Zuckerburg, the founder and CEO of Facebook, has been in the spotlight quite a bit lately testifying before congress.  As a result of public outcry for new policies, protocols, and algorithms Facebook has implemented review boards along with a number of new policies.  Twitter recently announced that starting soon it will no longer run political ads.

All of this debate over how private companies, that in this day and age arguably exist as public platforms, ought to regulate speech.  What risks do we run as a society by not putting pressure on private entities that have previously allowed the propagation of hate speech and the spread of “fake news”?  What are the risks of asking large platforms to limit speech of any kind?

A fascinating article from NPR made me think even more seriously about the potential implications of unregulated digital spaces.  “As 2020 draws closer, federal officials fear foreign governments and Internet trolls could use Facebook, Twitter and other platforms to spread rumors and propaganda to derail the constitutionally mandated count with at least 10 years’ worth of implications on elections around the country.” Without content monitoring the results of the 2020 census are at risk.  As cited in the article, a study published by MIT researchers found that falshoods (aka “fake news”) are more novel and there fore that information is much more likely to be retweeted.  While this study looked specifically at Twitter, we can make the assumption that the same principal follows for other platforms such as Facebook, YouTube, Google, Instagram, Reddit, and within interpersonal circles. 

For now, the quick reactions from Reddit and Twitter may be signs of hope to those concerned with the lack of existing algorithms and oversight but personally I am torn.  Of course the upcoming census is of the utmost importance and I am glad to see Representatives such as Vicente Gonzalez, Brian Schatz,  being so concerned about accurate representation.  On the other hand, as social media platforms begin to integrate methods of filtering and inhibiting speech, even if it is speech that seeks to undermine the fabric of democracy. It shows only how easy it would be for these same social media platforms to turn the tables…

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