The greatest threat to American democracy isn’t Russian meddling or voter apathy. It’s fake news.
In our diverse republic of 330 million people, government and civic institutions can only function if voters and elected officials rationally debate policies and collectively decide on the best course of action. However, increasingly, Americans on both sides of the aisle can’t even agree on the same set of fundamental facts. Millions of people are falling for outright unsupported conspiracy theories, which ooze throughout fringe websites and social media.
It’s up to social media companies to stamp out this fake news epidemic. Their own financial security — and the health of our democracy — depends on it.
A few decades ago, people generally learned of current events from a few widely trusted sources, such as the morning paper and the evening news. Now, the Internet and social media have made information instantaneously available from a myriad of sources. About 9-in-10 Americans read some form of online news.
The proliferation of multiple online news outlets has offered citizens real-time information and diverse view points, but it has also enabled hyper-partisan activists and unhinged conspiracy theorists to thrive.
Consider what happened after a school shooter killed 20 children at Sandy Hook Elementary in 2012. Numerous far-right chatroom posters and social media users suggested the massacre was a hoax designed to gin up support for gun control. Conspiracy theorists claimed the grieving relatives who appeared on TV in the days after the shooting were “crisis actors” — those parents even received death threats.
Similarly, in 2016, far-right conspiracy theorists suggested that prominent Democrats were running a child-sex trafficking ring at a D.C. pizza joint. A North Carolina man, hoping to free the children, entered the establishment and opened fire with a semiautomatic rifle. Thankfully, no one was hurt.
The far right doesn’t have a monopoly on fake news and conspiracy theories. Louise Mensch, a British blogger with more than 250,000 Twitter followers, became a hero to the #Resistance after spreading completely bonkers rumors about the Trump campaign’s alleged collusion with Russians. For instance, in July 2017, she tweeted “My sources say the death penalty, for espionage, being considered for” Steve Bannon, the president’s then-chief strategist. Her post garnered more than 1,100 retweets.
Such outrageous fake stories corrode our public discourse. How can we debate gun policy productively if some people believe mass shootings never happened? How can we expect to resolve allegations of collusion if so many people have already pre-judged special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation based on made-up stories?
America has always had conspiracy theorists. But, only recently have they gained a mass audience and perceived credibility through social media. Social media has morphed the conspiracy-obsessed manipulator into a seemingly reliable blogger. Over 40 percent of visitors to fake news websites arrived after clicking a link on Twitter Facebook, or other social media platforms.
Silicon Valley giants helped create the fake news epidemic. Now, they can help cure it.
It’s in these companies’ best interests to combat fake stories. Several members of Congress have already talked about imposing onerous regulations on social media giants — or even breaking them up. Social media firms can head off this existential threat by solving the problem themselves.
To their credit, social media companies have employed some efforts to stop fake news. Now, they need to triple down.
In particular, they need to invest more in technology — particularly artificial intelligence — that can detect fake news before it spreads. They also need to hire thousands more human fact-checkers to nip fake stories in the bud, while ensuring that legitimate, albeit partisan, news isn’t censored. Social media platforms should also work together to identify best practices and roll out systems for combatting fake news.
Additionally, they should hold sources of purported newsworthy information accountable. They should encourage social media influencers to detail who they are and how they’re qualified. From there, platforms can boost posts from influencers deemed credible.
Fake news undermines our civic discourse and pits Americans against each other. Social media giants need to get serious about stopping it.
• Yuri Vanetik, a private investor and political strategist, is a Lincoln Fellow at the Claremont Institute. He serves on the board of Gen Next and Gen Next Foundation.