No Silver Bullet for Fake News. By Sara Kachwalla from BPP University, and Best in Category winner for the vLex International Writing Competition category: Influence, Law & Technology.
By Sara Kachwalla
On the 4th of December in 2016, Edgar Maddison Welch fired three shots at Comet Ping Pong in Washington DC, wrongly believing that the pizzeria headquartered a satanic child trafficking ring run by Hillary Clinton. The source of his convictions? A conspiracy theory spun from a series of leaked emails between Clinton and her campaign manager, John Podesta. But although the theory has been widely debunked, no factual news story has managed to deter the torrent of posts from resolute believers. Pizzagate has all too clearly illustrated the dangers of fake news — a deep mistrust in traditional sources of authority, a decline in the visibility of legitimate press and an information environment where false claims are routinely defended as absolute facts.
These outcomes are not accidental, they are the by-products of a business model deliberately designed to monetise human engagement even at the cost of polarisation, foreign interference and manipulation. With over 3.6 billion users worldwide, social media wields an unprecedented amount of influence and yet these tech companies have enjoyed a lack of regulatory oversight. But as artificial intelligence becomes more sophisticated and deep fakes more realistic, the development of a resilient regulatory framework increasingly appears to be the only sustainable way forward. At stake is the protection of democracy, veracity and ultimately, a shared reality if existential problems such as climate change, rising inequality and a global pandemic are to be effectively tackled.
The Real Cost of Free
Although social media companies are often viewed as free platforms, they are more accurately categorised as giant advertising companies that profit off user engagement. This is because the longer a user stays engaged, the more exposure social media’s advertisements receive. However, this extractive business model is incredibly conducive to fake news and adversely affects how information is spread and consumed.
By using algorithms to maximise engagement, social media inadvertently spreads misinformation given clickbait and scandal are more likely to attract attention. Conversely, boring but verified information garners less engagement and is therefore shared less frequently. These effects are further exacerbated by design features such as unlimited scrolling and auto-play which push users down rabbit holes filled with inflammatory conspiracy theories. Ultimately, by personalising content, social media’s distributional framework is inherently divisive and inhibits the plurality of information so crucial to challenging opinions and fostering balanced perspectives.
Evidently, social media’s business model is fundamentally misaligned with the public interest. But the current whack-a-mole regulatory approach and its overreliance on existing paradigms has struggled to provide effective solutions — the platform-publisher debate fails to recognise that neither term accurately categorises social media, an antitrust policy must contend with the fact that dangerous monopolies do not always exist in the form of high prices, and a content moderation approach ignores the dangers of allowing governments and unelected tech companies to define misinformation. Consequently, social media’s unique characteristics have enabled it to elude systematic regulation given they cannot be adequately grasped by existing concepts.
With Great Power Comes Great Responsibility
Social media companies currently influence millions of people every day. But as repeated scandals have lucidly illustrated, they have not displayed a commensurate level of responsibility. As long as their unregulated business models drive decision making, fake news will continue to pervade social media. To this end, a novel regulatory framework enforced by an independent regulator will be key to effectively and sustainably tackling fake news. Although multiple areas of law will be required to address the issues at hand, legislation should be underpinned by the objectives of regulating reach, protecting users and fostering transparency.
Currently, a key issue with social media’s distributional framework is that it artificially amplifies and personalises content in order to engage users. A practical solution could lie in distinguishing between freedom of speech and freedom of reach. Under this approach, regulation would focus on making controversial content less visible by changing how social media algorithms operate and by making it more difficult for users to organically spread fake news. This would also prevent proposed regulation from getting bogged down by concerns about free speech. Lastly, the reach of foreign actors and their ability to weaponize misinformation must be combatted by defining the lines they must not cross and enforcing government led penalties if they do.
A business model focussed on commoditising its users will inevitably impact their welfare. This warrants protective regulation, particularly in the context of preserving user autonomy and dismantling the psychological environment that allows fake news to thrive. Essential to this will be recognising that certain aspects of social media may need to be vetted in the same way that new technologies must undergo substantial testing before they can penetrate the market. Regulation should also empower users by allowing them to decide how their data is used and how their news feeds are curated. In this regard, Tristan Harris’ research on ethical user design and Jack Balkin’s work on information fiduciaries provide illustrative examples of how these aims can be achieved in practice.
Although social media companies harbour volumes of personal data about their users, little is known about their internal processes. This asymmetry is problematic as legislators need to first understand how content moderation policies, design features and content algorithms contribute to spreading misinformation before they can draft effective regulation. Making social media companies comply with certain duties could foster transparency by requiring them to clearly set out their content moderation policies, disclose how algorithms are used to filter content, and provide regular reports detailing the amount of misinformation circulating their platforms.
Implementing a new legal framework will not be an instant panacea to fake news and the rapidity of technological change will continue to pose enduring challenges. But an intelligent and impartial regulatory body, willing to learn from experience and equipped with the necessary legal and technological expertise, may just provide the best way forward.
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No Silver Bullet for Fake News: Social Media Needs a New Regulatory Framework was originally published in vLex News and Updates on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.