Back in 2016, I could count on one hand the kinds of interventions that technology companies were willing to use to rid their platforms of misinformation, hate speech, and harassment. Over the years, crude mechanisms like blocking content and banning accounts have morphed into a more complex set of tools, including quarantining topics, removing posts from search, barring recommendations, and down-ranking posts in priority.
And yet, even with more options at their disposal, misinformation remains a serious problem. There was a great deal of coverage about misinformation on Election Day—my colleague Emily Drefyuss found, for example, that when Twitter tried to deal with content using the hashtag #BidenCrimeFamily, with tactics including “de-indexing” by blocking search results, users including Donald Trump adapted by using variants of the same tag. But we still don’t know much about how Twitter decided to do those things in the first place, or how it weighs and learns from the ways users react to moderation.
As social media companies suspended accounts and labeled and deleted posts, many researchers, civil society organizations, and journalists scrambled to understand their decisions. The lack of transparency about those decisions and processes means that—for many—the election results end up with an asterisk this year, just as they did in 2016.
What actions did these companies take? How do their moderation teams work? What is the process for making decisions? Over the last few years, platform companies put together large task forces dedicated to removing election misinformation and labeling early declarations of victory. Sarah Roberts, a professor at UCLA, has written about the invisible labor of platform content moderators as a shadow industry, a labyrinth of contractors and complex rules which the public knows little about. Why don’t we know more?
In the post-election fog, social media has become the terrain for a low-grade war on our cognitive security, with misinformation campaigns and conspiracy theories proliferating. When the broadcast news business served the role of information gatekeeper, it was saddled with public interest obligations such as sharing timely, local, and relevant information. Social media companies have inherited a similar position in society, but they have not taken on those same responsibilities. This situation has loaded the cannons for claims of bias and censorship in how they moderated election-related content.
Bearing the costs
In October, I joined a panel of experts on misinformation, conspiracy, and infodemics for the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence. I was flanked by Cindy Otis, an ex-CIA analyst; Nina Jankowicz, a disinformation fellow at the Wilson Center; and Melanie Smith, head of analysis at Graphika.
As I prepared my testimony, Facebook was struggling to cope with QAnon, a militarized social movement being monitored by their dangerous-organizations department and condemned by the House in a bipartisan bill. My team has been investigating QAnon for years. This conspiracy theory has become a favored topic among misinformation researchers because of all the ways it has remained extensible, adaptable, and resilient in the face of platform companies’ efforts to quarantine and remove it.
QAnon has also become an issue for Congress, because it’s no longer about people participating in a strange online game: it has touched down like a tornado in the lives of politicians, who are now the targets of harassment campaigns that cross over from the fever dreams of conspiracists to violence. Moreover, it’s happened quickly and in new ways. Conspiracy theories usually take years to spread through society, with the promotion of key political, media, and religious figures. Social media has sped this process through ever-growing forms of content delivery. QAnon followers don’t just comment on breaking news; they bend it to their bidding.