The Problem Is Facebook and Twitter Themselves

From The Washington Post:

Facebook said Saturday evening that an article raising concerns that the coronavirus vaccine could lead to death was the top performing link in the United States on its platform from January through March of this year, acknowledging the widespread reach of such material for the first time. It also said another site that pushed covid-19 misinformation was also among theย top 20ย most visited pages on the platform.

In related news, the German Marshall Fund issued a study of interactions on Facebook. The study found that sites that share news in misleading ways attracted a record-level percentage of Facebook users:

More than 1 in 5 interactions โ€” such as shares, likes or comments โ€” with U.S. sites from April to June happened on โ€œoutlets that gather and present information irresponsibly,โ€ according to [the study].

This includes outlets such as the Daily Wire, TMZ, the Epoch Times and Breitbart that researchers say โ€œdistort or misrepresent information to make an argument or report on a subject,โ€ a metric determined by NewsGuard, a website cited in the study that rates the credibility of news sources. Researchers say these sources, which they argue spread subtler but still harmful forms of misinformation, are decidedly different from sites that publish overtly false news.

โ€œThese are the kinds of sites that will cherry pick anecdotes and are giving rise to vaccine hesitancy and other kinds of conspiracy theories,โ€ said [the study’s director].

Researchers highlighted articles that they say โ€œdisproportionately amplify vaccine-hesitant voices over expertsโ€ and โ€œfail to mention risks of not being vaccinated against covid-19″ . . .

While platforms have cracked down on black-and-white cases of fiction masquerading as fact, they are still grappling with how to handle murky yet wide-reaching cases that stop short of falsehood. . . .ย 

The ratio of misleading content marks a five-year high for Facebook, where โ€œfalse content producersโ€ have received a higher share of engagement in the past, according to the findings (The Washington Post).

Unquote.

What should we do about a company like Facebook that seems hell-bent on spreading harmful misinformation? One answer is to prosecute Mark Zuckerberg and his ilk as dangers to public health.

However, Vinay Prasad, a professor at the University of California medical school, suggests a more measured approach: we should deal with social media companies the way we dealt with tobacco companies thirty years ago. From Medpage Today:ย 

Many Americans, and especially healthcare providers, are frustrated as we watch yet another rise in COVID-19 cases. Severely ill and hospitalized patients are often unvaccinated, which is particularly disheartening, given the widespread availability — surplus — of mRNA vaccines in the U.S. . . .

One potential reason why a sizable fraction of Americans are reluctant to be vaccinated is the widespread availability of inaccurate, unbalanced, or irrational rhetoric. This speech falls across a spectrum from overtly delusional — vaccines contain microchips so Bill Gates can track you — to lesser degrees of pejorative and doubtful comments. . . .

[But] regulating or policing medical misinformation is doomed. It’s easy for most (sensible) people to recognize that mRNA vaccines do not contain microchips that allow Bill Gates to track you. But very quickly we find statements about vaccines that are unknown, disputed, and worthy of further dialogue. Lines between legitimate debate and misinformation become scientifically impossible to draw. . . .

Even on a social media website for medical professionals that restricts who can comment and regulates comments, as Doximity does, there are a number of erroneous statements, mis-statements and ill-informed comments, suggesting that regulating speakers is not an effective solution either. Some doctors may say incorrect things, and some lay people may be spot on. Policing speakers can’t solve the content issue.

. . . It is easy to feel that some erroneous views should not be permitted on social media, but the hard part is to define what should not be allowed. Notably, despite the Surgeon General’s report and much debate on the issue, no one has actually delineated what counts as misinformation. I suspect that it cannot be done. No one can create a rule book that separates black and white because the world we live in is only gray. You can’t outlaw what you can’t define.

The problem is Facebook and Twitter themselves.

In 50 years, social media in 2021 will look like the tobacco industry in 1960 — they knowingly offered an addictive product, and, worse, hid the damage the addiction caused, while actively tried to deepen the dependency. Social media companies try to keep you using the platform longer, baiting you with content to trigger your rage, disgust, lust, or hatred. These companies offer products that have been linked to anxiety and depression among users. . . .
When it comes to information, social media does three things.

First, it drives people into irrational poles. On one side are folks who think SARS-CoV-2 is not real or just another seasonal flu. These individuals are often suspicious of vaccination as a path out of the pandemic. On the other side are folks who believe we should lock down until there isn’t a single case of COVID left. . . . The very nature of social media drives individuals into further extreme positions, possibly aided by bots, sock-puppet accounts, or foreign intelligence agencies. The middle ground is lost.

Second, a good or bad idea on these platforms can reach millions of individuals. An anecdote (of dubious validity) of a vaccinated individual suffering a bizarre harm, or one of an unvaccinated person begging for vaccination before the endotracheal tube is placed . . . are both powerful psychological stories that reach millions. This is heroin of the mind.

Third, social media causes deterioration of discourse and harsh proposals. . . . We no longer see individuals with whom we have policy disagreements as people.

The solution is inevitable. Social media of 2021 must be dismantled and crippled like the tobacco industry. These digital tools have hijacked our neurotransmitters, just like tobacco. Denying the pernicious role of these platforms on our society is similar to those who denied the harms of tobacco. Just like tobacco, social media offers pleasures. But, just like tobacco, the industry that supports it has pushed too far, lusting for profits and domination.

. . . Our leaders offer toothless solutions like policing or removing information they view as particularly egregious. This introduces countless problems and immense potential for abuse. . . .

Instead, the platforms need to be crushed, broken up, and regulated. Rather than just censoring specific ideas, measuring attention and trying to capture more of it must be prohibited. . . . The platforms must be brought to their knees, just like Big Tobacco, while human ideas — good, bad, sublime, horrible, true, false, and everything in โ€“ between must be free.