On Monday evening, U.S. President Donald Trump raised an alarming prospect. In a tweet, he declared that a recent U.S. Supreme Court decision extending the deadline for mail-in ballots to be counted “will allow rampant and unchecked cheating and will undermine our entire systems of laws. It will also induce violence in the streets. Something must be done!”
Something was done, eventually: Approximately 40 minutes after the tweet was posted, Twitter stripped it of its retweet function and covered it with a label that read: “Some or all of the content shared in this tweet is disputed and might be misleading about an election or other civic process.” The label, which users had to click on if they wanted to view Mr. Trump’s original post, included a link to Twitter’s page about its civic integrity policy; below the tweet was a link users could follow to understand “how voting by mail is safe and secure.”
Better late than never, I suppose. But, as researchers who track disinformation noted, by the time Twitter took action the tweet had already been retweeted more than 55,000 times, and “liked” more than 126,000 times.
Meanwhile on Facebook, the same baseless warning from Mr. Trump was left up on his page, albeit with a reassuring note placed beneath it by the company explaining that mail-in voting and in-person voting “have a long history of trustworthiness in the U.S.”
The platforms' gentle chiding of the President, like so many of the attempts to rein him in over the course of his adult life, seemed both quaint and toothless, a scolding schoolmarm stealing glances at the classroom clock in hopes of hurrying the arrival of the dismissal bell.
No matter the outcome of the election, Mr. Trump has won perhaps his most important battle. As his former chief aide, Steve Bannon, explained to Bloomberg in February, 2018, “the real opposition is the media ... and the way to deal with them is to flood the zone” with garbage.
Mr. Trump had already been a battering ram of disinformation before he won the White House; in the 46 months that he has had the presidential pulpit, he has become an increasingly rabid conspiracist-in-chief, issuing directions and talking points that are taken up by millions of followers and amplified across the information ecosystem, from mainstream TV networks to dark corners of social media.
Attempting to debunk his statements is necessary, but it’s also wholly insufficient, and sometimes even dangerous: Traditional media outlets took too long into his term to realize that, in correcting the record, they also amplify his baseless claims. Meanwhile, social-media platforms are not constructed to enable the widespread circulation of corrections. In fact, disinformation is a trap, because algorithms are written in such a way that any engagement with content – even to correct it – helps to boost its popularity and dissemination.
At the risk of seeming old-fashioned – worse, a technophobe – it’s worth remembering that disinformation, the intentional poisoning of an information ecosystem, has long been understood to be so potentially toxic to a society that its deployment was left to the Central Intelligence Agency. Now, your Aunt Agnes and Uncle Phil spend their days sharing the stuff.
Those fighting its spread over the past few years include three Canadians: the debunking crew at BuzzFeed, Craig Silverman and Jane Lytvynenko; and Daniel Dale, who proved such a whiz at real-time fact-checking of Mr. Trump’s speeches while reporting for the Toronto Star that CNN snapped him up last year. Which, on the one hand, is heartening – celebrities and top editors have called Mr. Dale a national treasure – but also a dispiriting indicator of the trouble we’re in. Fact-checking used to be such an unremarkable task, the very baseline of journalism, that magazines would employ faceless freelancers to carry it out.
Late last week, Instagram announced it would temporarily remove one of its features that highlights trending topics “to reduce the real-time spread of potentially harmful content that could pop up around the election.” As the New York Times tech reporter Mike Isaac noted, on Twitter: “What does it say about a platform that it must take down long-running features to make it less immediately harmful. And, conversely, when the election is over, why is it okay to turn the harmful feature back on?”
Mr. Trump has exposed the vulnerabilities of our information ecosystem. What are we willing to do to fix it?
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