The COVID-19 pandemic has led to increased social media usage during an election year, creating a perfect storm for misinformation. As tech companies blur the line between information and entertainment, voters are left to piece together what is true and false — at least, to them.
In October 2019, Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey announced the platform would ban all political advertisements. A few weeks ago, Facebook announced it would do the same, but only after the election on Nov. 3.
Andrew Theising, a professor in the political science department, said that while these decisions leave moral questions to be answered, they also show signs of progress.
“If somebody wants to smear the other candidate, they could put out something that’s full of lies,” Theising said. “Does the platform have an obligation to censor those lies? … Have they made the right decisions? I don’t know. But I’m glad that they are considering it, because you know what? A few years back, they weren’t even considering it.”
However, this approach doesn’t help candidates looking to get their word out to young voters, according to political science professor Laurie Rice.
“[Banning social media ads] might not be actually the best solution,” Rice said. “Campaigns still need to reach voters … if they stick just to traditional forms of advertising on television, that is going to miss most young people, who are more likely to rely on streaming services than they are to actually turn on a standard television channel.”
Even outside of advertising, misinformation is a global problem that certain countries have dealt with more effectively than others, according to associate applied communications professor Sarah VanSlette.
“The U.K., for example, and the EU, are doing a much better job of regulating social media,” VanSlette said. “Even things like our personal information as social media users, [you] have rights to that if you’re a European citizen. In America, we haven’t gotten that far yet.”
After over half a year of stay-at-home orders and quarantines, Americans have become isolated not just physically, but politically, according to a Pew Research study. VanSlette said Netflix documentary “The Social Dilemma” highlights how social media companies have affected the way users reach — or don’t reach — across the political spectrum.
“In ‘The Social Dilemma,’ all these people who built these social media platforms … who at the outset were so hopeful that it would be a bringing together of people … agree that it’s actually had the opposite effect — that it drives people into these silos of thinking where you … only hear what you want to hear,” VanSlette said.
Rice said this has also been true in prior elections, through prior technologies.
“It’s certainly a contributing factor, but I think polarization began long before the advent of social media,” Rice said. “Polarization began to be driven by cable news networks and talk radio shows … social media just might amplify it some, but it certainly hasn’t been the spark that created this.”
Not all tech companies are contributing to this trend — in fact, some are fighting back. Mozilla, best known for its Firefox web browser, recently launched an “Unfck the Internet” campaign, giving people tools to protect themselves against misinformation and data mining at the hands of social media companies.
VanSlette said we can change our social media habits without becoming disconnected from our friends.
“I have not deleted my Facebook account, but I’ve logged out and I deleted the app from my phone,” VanSlette said. “That act alone has kept me off Facebook for weeks ... it’s forced me to reach out in a more tangible way — texting, calling, driving by people’s houses. People who I really want to see, I will still connect with.”
The best tool we each have to fight falsehood is critical thinking, part of which is evaluating our information intake, according to Theising.
“I think that we all have a burden to think critically and be responsible for our decisions,” Theising said. “We are so careful about what we put into our bodies — what we eat, the chemicals, … but we don’t always think about what we put into our brains.”