Fake news and social media disinformation were topics of conversation Thursday afternoon in a panel discussion co-sponsored by Northeastern University-Seattle and the World Affairs Council-Seattle and hosted by New York Times technology reporter Davey Alba.
A variety of political and media experts covered concerns surrounding the role of social media platforms in both spreading and combating misinformation and the rising threat of disinformation in the United States, especially with the upcoming presidential election.
“There is an information war in this country,” said panelist Tara McGowan, political strategist and co-founder and CEO of non-profit digital media organization Acronym. “The right is winning, the president has poured gasoline on it, the left isn’t competing and the mainstream media is really ineffective at countering.”
Panelists also included McKay Coppins, staff writer at The Atlantic covering the Republican party and Peter Hamby, host of “Good Luck America” on Snapchat and former CNN national political correspondent.
The discussion opened on the issue of social media feeds and the echo-chambers they create. Coppins described his experience earlier this year of creating a fake Facebook profile to immerse himself in the same media content bubble as that of a supporter of President Donald J. Trump during the House and Senate impeachment trials.
“I went into this as a reporter, with what I felt like was a pretty firm grasp of what was actually happening in the impeachment proceedings at the time,” Coppins said. “The further I immersed myself in the MAGA content that was being put out there, the more and more I felt myself becoming detached from the idea of observable reality. After weeks and weeks of this, I felt a complete sense of disorientation. My grasp on what was true and what wasn’t began to feel looser.”
McGowan explained that part of the danger of misinformation spreading online in these circles is that the majority of Americans are low information voters — busy, working people with families who are no longer being informed by television or radio news, but rather their endless social media feeds.
As a result, political parties have changed their outreach approach to voters, moving away from paid advertising and grass-roots organizing and towards social media posts. These are far less likely to be fact-checked and regulated than traditional advertising — a reality that Republican operatives have understood much better than their Democratic opponents, McGowan said.
“When we talk about misinformation and disinformation, we aren’t just talking about nefarious rogue actors or foreign governments. We are talking about the president of the United States now,” McGowan said. “We are talking about a really sophisticated entrenched right-wing media infrastructure that is spreading lies and misinformation every day.”
McGowan added that Democrats have had to play catch-up, adding to an already crowded social media landscape.
Journalists likewise have found themselves adjusting to the reality of online conspiracies and their ability to create real-world change. Coppins explained that initially, mainstream journalists would “dignify silly things like birtherism with a response,” but after such content “launched the political career of the current president of the United States,” journalists can no longer ignore the lies and misinformation spreading online.
While journalists may be spending more time debunking conspiracy theories online, Coppins stressed that this amplification might inadvertently be unhelpful. The Trump-era obsession of battling with bad-faith propagandists and disinformation artists, he said, has taken too much time away from journalists, at a time when the public needs reliable information more than ever.
American’s newfound reliance on social media for news has played a substantial part in the disappearance of local news from the media landscape, which, as McGowan puts it, poses a serious threat to our democracy.
According to McGowan, local news is also being dismantled by right-wing organizations who covertly purchase and politicize trusted community news outlets. At the same time, Trump has effectively undermined the mainstream media, convincing his base not to believe anyone but him, she explained.
By engaging with non-traditional news media content like that found on social platforms, voters are exposed to potential misinformation on platforms such as Facebook and Google, where content regulation has long been a national concern.
Hamby, the Snapchat host, explained that many of these massive platforms amplify content — even fake news and disinformation — to make the most profit. Hamby argued that these platforms should be more responsible for monitoring content instead of turning a blind eye and allowing harmful posts to be spread widely.
“At [Snapchat], we don’t treat content agnostically,” Hamby said. “We curate it, and we make sure that it’s trusted and safe and credible before we allow it on our platform.”
Snapchat, whose audience is primarily made up of individuals under 25-years-old, is a major player in the short-form news media industry, where brief clips capture fleeting attention spans.
Frequently, these consumers do not want to process information from long articles and prefer social media feeds. When conspiracy theories arise on these platforms, Hamby argued that the companies in charge are not held accountable and do not do enough to combat potentially dangerous information.
“Currently, the platforms are playing a little bit of whack-a-mole and are doing window-dressing press release responses to a lot of the disinformation happening on the internet,“ Hamby said. “This isn’t coming in the form of paid advertising; it’s coming from individual users spreading and sharing misinformation, disinformation and false news.”
Advice from the panelists on combating misinformation included noting the track record of the accuracy of news organizations, talking to family and friends directly if they share fake news and remaining wary of domestic disinformation.
“A lot of domestic bad-actors are deliberately and routinely pumping out bad information into the ecosystem to deceive voters about a range of issues,” Coppins said. “[Technology] platforms have been much more reluctant to tackle that problem and much more confused about where to draw the line between unsavory political ideas and straight-up disinformation. That’s going to have a bigger effect on this election than any foreign government.”