Containing Misinformation and Bolstering Democracy

Media history is rife with cautionary tales of the failure to rein in problematic behavior.

 Regardless of the medium, failure to address the propagation of misinformation has dire consequences, and today’s digital media platforms likewise require oversight to counter the dangers they pose to the stability and foundational norms of participatory democracy and civil society.

The pervasiveness of digital media platforms is a unique characteristic of the 21st Century, and presents a remarkable opportunity for bolstering civil discourse and reinforcing democratic ideals and fact-based decision-making. However, this educational and empowering potential is being actively subverted to become increasingly subservient to commercial and political imperatives. Today, the tensions between business practices and our ideals for a participatory, democratic, and equitable civil society are growing rapidly.

Over the past decade, the ability of both truthful and misleading information to rapidly propagate has presented an increasing challenge for Internet users, who often utilize quick heuristics to tell truth from fiction, and which too often leads to both abusive as well as accidental distribution. False, misleading, and even deliberately deceitful content often has an equal – and sometimes greater – reach than accurate, fact-based information. The velocity of information-dissemination can be particularly problematic during times of crisis — whether war, natural disaster, or COVID-19 pandemic.

Today’s social media platforms, as well as the misinformation they propagate, remain largely uncontrolled, with few policies in place to check the spread of verifiably false content. Within this “wild west” legal topology, social media users often fall victim to myth and misinformation, with conspiracy theories and false claims taking advantage of immediate expediency, naivete, and prejudicial predilections.

As attention-optimization algorithms (a.k.a., AI) meant primarily to increase digital advertising revenue increasingly supplant journalistic editorial judgement as the central distribution mechanism used by global information markets, misinformation and disinformation pose an increasingly tangible threat to public health, civil discourse, and public trust in one of the foundational societal institutions: our public media. Today, the need for regulators to exercise their oversight powers, and for legislators to ensure that rule of law mandates meaningfully transparent, documented, and accountable curation via these platforms, is ascendant.