With the recent reveal that Russian fake news accounts bought Facebook ads before the 2016 election which may have reached 70 million Americans, the discussion about what responsibility social media sites have to curb disinformation campaigns is back in the news. It’s an even more pressing matter considering these campaigns are still being used to incite genocide and cover up atrocities. Something has to be done.
Ev Williams, who co-founded Twitter, Medium, and Blogger, sold 30% of his Twitter stock for “personal” reasons but still serves on the board of Twitter, which puts him in a position to address social media’s responsibility in combating propaganda campaigns waged through their own servers. Williams spoke to CNN Money frankly about tech companies’ responsibility.
One argument often lobbed around Silicon Valley is that companies shouldn’t make judgments about what people say, but Williams points out the obvious: These companies already make judgments all the time. “I think the fact tech companies have to accept is that there are judgments being made all the way down the line. There are judgments about how the algorithm works, what the system values, what the feedback loops are,” Williams said.
“The most nefarious feedback loop that drives belief and misinformation on the internet and in media in general is that it’s all driven by advertising and it’s all free and attention is valued and if you can generate attention then you can get paid,” Williams continued, “You don’t get paid more if it’s attention based on someone consciously choosing to pay attention or you scream ‘fire’ in a theater. You still get paid.”
Williams tied this “nefarious feedback loop” back into the topic of fake news and tech companies’ hand in helping it spread and profiting from it. “Most of fake news– some of it was driven by ideological beliefs, a ton of it was driven by people just making a buck on ads. Who was sending them money? It was the major ad platforms. It was these tech companies. […] anyone who’s selling ads — these ad-driven platforms — they’re benefiting from a lot of the fake information, misinformation, and these campaigns, and they’re also benefiting from people just generating attention at pretty much any cost.”
One thing Williams said succinctly summed up the brokenness of this system: “A fundamental problem with our information ecosystem is attention gets rewarded, not quality of information.”
With most internet content being ad-supported free content, there’s a strong incentive to scream “fire” in a theater, as it were, and a strong incentive for companies to look the other way while profiting off hate groups, trolls, scammers, and propagandists, but Williams makes a good case for making another judgment call among the many judgment calls already made in building the platform in the first place.
If only there were an absurdly easy way to filter out some of the disinformation…