We need to take additional steps toward hardening our information infrastructure ahead of the 2018 midterm elections. The recent special election in Alabama demonstrates the importance of securing not just our physical capability to vote but also the mental machinery of voters. We cannot lose any precious time in the race against misinformation and disinformation by getting distracted by Congress’ attempts to railroad through a tax reform bill and investigation of dubious allegations of bias in the special counsel’s investigation into the Trump campaign’s Russia connections.
Electoral interference by way of directly influencing individual voters is a pernicious issue precisely because it largely invisibly affects how we think.
Psychological research into how we process information reveals, perhaps surprisingly, that people must accept things as true before they reject them. In past psychological experiments, when subjects were fed false information and had their thinking processes interrupted during processing, they were more likely to remember falsehoods as true later.
Given what we know about how people flit around from thing to thing on the internet, as well as the shallow depths of information processing that is typical of social media consumption, it is no surprise that four in 10 Americans believe that we found weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. Other research shows that most people (over 73 percent) don’t click through to the linked article before liking or upvoting. The combination of mental auto-pilot and cognitive laziness is a recipe for being influenced by false information without ever even knowing it.
For companies whose very currency is information, it is curious that more efforts aren’t made to ensure the information that is promulgated is high quality and factual. While the behavior of users is certainly their own individual responsibility, what each platform’s algorithm does that amplifies individual voices is squarely in the basket of responsibilities of the company. Whether it is trending topics on Twitter, choices over what pops up on your News Feed in Facebook, or rising topics on Reddit, these wide-area broadcasts likely reach more people on a regular basis than the combined output of traditional media.
These platforms are behaving in ways that cry out to be regulated. Platform companies are controlling access to information at scale, in ways that traditional media could only dream about. That these “broadcasters” are not regulated even as media companies, which face minimal legal regulation as it is, cannot be allowed to continue.
The status quo is simply another example of where legislation has failed to keep up with technological developments. Given the pace of change we’ve experienced, we shouldn’t be surprised at the lag, but we should demand action once we’ve identified the problem.
Unfortunately, we don’t usually act on things until it is too late and the problem has already manifested. Being pro-active is not a strength of our current governance structure, but we are failing at even being reactive. The only current piece of legislation in Congress on this issue is the bipartisan Honest Ads Act, which puts additional reporting requirements on political ads placed on social media.
Opposed by most tech firms, which prefer self-regulation (who doesn’t?), the Honest Ads Act really papers over the tip of the iceberg. The outcry over Google’s search function promoting false stories during the Las Vegas terrorist attack this year shows that it must learn better how to balance between allowing any and all information and censoring real but unpleasant stories.
All of these platforms have a long way to go toward ensuring high integrity information is found and distributed before the avalanche of possible falsehoods — all while not doing the kind of informational suppression that would anger even the most accepting of partisans. At the end of the day, these firms are navigating a new environment just like all of us are: They never signed up to be the arbiters of truth, yet here they are; we never voted to give them the ability to arbitrate truth, yet by virtue of network dominance, here we are.
These head-spinning challenges require congressional hearings open to the public, more transparency and data sharing on the part of the platform owners, and, most of all, deliberate and thoughtful analysis informed by the legal framework of the Bill of Rights. We need to work together on this critical issue and come together around our shared set of American values. We’re in danger of taking our eyes off the ball at the exact moment when we can’t afford to do so. If we do nothing, the integrity of the results of the 2018 election may be at risk.