How to stop the ‘greatest propaganda machine in history’ from warping democracy


How to distinguish fact from fiction in an age where misinformation is dangerously pandemic? The Washington Post’s Valerie Strauss asks, drawing on lessons from the nonprofit News Literacy Project and the educational resources it provides in this piece and the project’s free weekly newsletter called the Sift, including….

A new report from the Stanford History Education Group that found little change in high school students’ ability to evaluate information online since 2016, when the Stanford researchers released the results of a similar study.

Credit: CNAS

Every new communication technology brings a range of constructive and destructive effects, and over time, ways are found to improve the balance, note analysts Jonathan Haidt and Tobias Rose-Stockwell. If we want democracy to succeed—indeed, if we want the idea of democracy to regain respect in an age when dissatisfaction with democracies is rising—we’ll need to understand the many ways in which social-media platforms create conditions that may be hostile to democracy’s success, they write for The Atlantic Monthly, suggesting three types of reform:

(1) Reduce the frequency and intensity of public performance. If social media creates incentives for moral grandstanding rather than authentic communication, then we should look for ways to reduce those incentives. One such approach already being evaluated by some platforms is “demetrication,” the process of obscuring like and share counts so that individual pieces of content can be evaluated on their own merit, and so that social-media users are not subject to continual, public popularity contests.

(2) Reduce the reach of unverified accounts. Bad actors—trolls, foreign agents, and domestic provocateurs—benefit the most from the current system, where anyone can create hundreds of fake accounts and use them to manipulate millions of people. Social media would immediately become far less toxic, and democracies less hackable, if the major platforms required basic identity verification before anyone could open an account—or at least an account type that allowed the owner to reach large audiences……


(3) Reduce the contagiousness of low-quality information. Social media has become more toxic as friction has been removed. Adding some friction back in has been shown to improve the quality of content. For example, just after a user submits a comment, AI can identify text that’s similar to comments previously flagged as toxic and ask, “Are you sure you want to post this?” This extra step has been shown to help Instagram users rethink hurtful messages. ….

A pluralistic democratic society should make sure people are not targeted, not harassed and not murdered because of who they are, where they come from, who they love or how they pray, argues Sacha Baron-Cohen (above). If we do that maybe we have a chance of stopping the greatest propaganda machine in history, he writes for The Washington Post. 

At the same time, Twitter surfaced a recent study from academics in France, Canada and the United States, which examined the relationship between social-media echo chambers and support for populism in France, Britain and the United States, notes Ross Douthat. The authors found that there was either no relationship or a negative one: Populist voters were somewhat more likely to hang out with people of a similar ethnicity or social class offline, but on the internet they were no more likely than other voters to inhabit an echo chamber,

The assumption that a better social media ecosystem would help dilute illiberal voices leads to two mistakes, he writes for The Times:

  • First, you end up downgrading the obvious real-world forces driving populism’s appeal, persuading yourself that an algorithmic tweak or better fact-checking will deal with deep trends — economic stagnation, social crisis — that would exist with or without fake news.
  • Second, you lose sight of the ways in which your own information bubble is a potential radicalizing force — including for people observing it from outside, for whom it makes political liberalism seem like an airless world filled with hyper-educated ideologues….

Communities are being ripped apart as prejudice, hate and disinformation are peddled online. We’re at a tipping point. How we respond to this abuse will determine whether the web lives up to its potential as a global force for good or leads us into a digital dystopia, adds Tim Berners-Lee, the inventor of the World Wide Web and a co-founder of the World Wide Web Foundation.

The web needs radical intervention from all those who have power over its future: governments that can legislate and regulate; companies that design products; civil society groups and activists who hold the powerful to account; and every single web user who interacts with others online, he writes for The Times. Which is why he is introducing a new approach – the Contract for the Web –  a global plan of action created over the past year by activists, academics, companies, governments and citizens from across the world to make sure our online world is safe, empowering and genuinely for everyone. RTWT

The EU doesn’t have a sense of its disinformation problem – this report suggests the policy changes it can make, Nieman Lab reports. For European media to thrive in an increasingly confusing environment, it needs three things: freedom, funding, and help finding a future. In that order, according to a new report from the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism (HT; NED’s Center for International Media Assistance).

Democracies are at risk from foreign disinformation attacks when there is at least an authoritarian neighbor with strong Internet censorship as an indicator of online warfare capacity, with implied geopolitical competition, a new analysis contends. Regional autocracy promotion and democratic resilience can co-exist, argue analysts Chun-chih Chang, Min Chiao Chang and Thung-Hong Lin, drawing on V-Dem’s Digital Society Project and political-economic indicators from 160 countries from 2001 to 2017:

  • On one hand, authoritarian regimes disseminate fake news to interfere functions of democratic regimes in the region.
  • On the other hand, democracies with higher educated citizens still demonstrate their resilience to defeat the infringement of fake news abroad.
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