Social Media Misinformation on the Rise Again?

After years of increased attention and attempts at regulation, experts are worried misinformation on social media may be on the rise once more. While major events like the US presidential elections, COVID and Russia’s invasion of Ukraine have put the spotlight consistently on ‘fake news’, mass layoffs by social media giants have limited their capacity to deal with misinformation.

The 2016 US election seems to have been one of the primary catalysts for efforts to combat misinformation online in the recent past. The election was fraught with Russian meddling through social media algorithms, and its victor – former President Trump – is one of the foremost perpetrators and critics of ‘fake news’.

In response, social media giants like YouTube, Twitter, and Meta ramped up resources to tackle mis- and disinformation on their platforms. For example, YouTube hired swaths of policy experts and content moderators, and invested in more technology to mitigate the spread of false information.

The spread of misinformation only continued to grow after 2016. During the COVID pandemic, anti-vaxxers and conspiracy theorists flooded social media platforms with false information. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine last year reinvigorated the ‘information war’ between the Kremlin and the West, both within Russia and its allies, and in the wider world.

Misinformation online has often promoted foreign agendas like Putin’s

Unfortunately, although the battle against misinformation online is far from over, it would seem social media companies are less and less interested in fighting. Worryingly, the big names in social media have laid off thousands of employees, compromising the effectiveness of their misinformation teams.

Google’s parent company, Alphabet, cut 12,000 employees in January – a reduction that included members of YouTube’s small team of policy experts in charge of handling misinformation.

Meta has shifted its focus and resources to the Metaverse, and cut 11,000 jobs in November of last year. A couple of weeks ago, Mark Zuckerberg announced another round of cuts, with 10,000 more jobs set to go, and 5,000 unfilled roles to be closed down. And the company also restored Trump’s Instagram and Facebook accounts in February, barely two years after he was suspended from the platforms for his role in the Capital riots.

Meanwhile, Twitter’s new era under Elon Musk’s ownership has been characterised by backsliding on misinformation policies.

Within days of taking over as Twitter’s CEO, Elon Musk sacked roughly half of the company’s entire workforce. Hundreds more left on their own, after Musk demanded workers commit to being ‘hardcore’ or leave – dropping Twitter’s workforce down to just 2,000 people. And about a month ago Musk cut another 200 workers.

It’s not just employees that have been leaving Twitter either – users have ditched the platform in protest of Musk’s ‘free-for-all’ approach to accounts known for hate speech and/or misinformation.

When he took over, Musk promised “general amnesty” for suspended accounts, enabling the likes of Trump’s former adviser Steve Bannon, UK far-right commentator Katie Hopkins, and former KKK ‘grand wizard’ David Duke to return to the platform. High profile celebrities like Whoopi Goldberg, Sir Elton John and Jim Carrey stopped using Twitter in response.

Musk also reversed a Twitter policy designed to tackle COVID misinformation, implemented at the start of the pandemic. The policy included placing warnings on tweets with disputed COVID information, and a system to have users remove tweets with harmfully false claims about vaccination.

Angelo Carusone is the president of the media watchdog Media Matters for America, and spoke about the trend to the New York Times. “I wouldn’t say the war is over, but I think we’ve lost key battles,” he said.

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