Twitter is going to add “new labels and warning messages that will provide additional context and information on some Tweets containing disputed or misleading information related to COVID-19,” the company noted in a blog post. This is part of continued efforts on the part of the company to distinguish real content from fake news and manipulated data. Further down US Highway 101, Facebook is still trying to label, re-classify, and deal with the scourge of fake information on its network.
The more I think about their approaches, I can’t help but conclude that they are tackling the wrong problem. In many ways, the actions of these social networks are akin to those of our entire body politic — we want to put a bandaid on the symptoms and forget about the real cause of the problems. Rather than take a real gander at the task, we settle for promises of a better tomorrow. Instead of enforcing masks, better tests, and the collection of accurate data, our legislators want to pin their hopes on a mythical vaccine and herd immunity.
Okay, I got off tangent there!
Twitter (and Facebook) can do their very best to label the information on their platforms, but the real problem is not of fake news and manipulated information. It is about bots and fake accounts. These bots and fake accounts exist for the sole purpose of spreading misinformation With enough likes, retweets, and re-shares, what is clearly fake becomes increasingly ambiguous, and then it enters the mainstream conversation (often with a big boost from boosters and detractors in the mainstream media). As a consequence, we are all left scratching our heads and wondering what the hell is going on. We are all suddenly surrounded by the fog of lies and half-truths.
Some of you might remember how, back when we used email accounts that were from our ISPs, or from our work, we used to get a lot of junk mail and spam. The majority used their own desktop clients, and in order to avoid the junk mail, we had to add plugins and additional software to our desktop clients. We had to keep upgrading our junk filters to fight the madness. The email providers and ISPs turned managing junk mail into our problem.
Eventually, Google came along with Gmail and started killing spam at the cloud level. Over a period of time, a whole network layer intelligence developed around spam and junk mail. It allowed the big email providers to come together and collectively hunt down the sources — and while not entirely successful, it was a good fight that has given us a semblance of control over our email inboxes. Almost!
Many of us who were early bloggers have dealt with spam comments that look amazingly like real comments. And it wasn’t up until Akismet came along that comments got cleaned up. Of course, by then the paid trolls had taken over. It seems history is repeating itself.
What Twitter and Facebook are trying to do reminds me of those early days of email. It’s the same old mistake: Adding labels is not the answer. They need to be stopping the spammers and spreaders of fake news and misinformation at the platform level. Artificial intelligence (while not completely intelligent) has progressed enough for the social networks to take a hatchet to these fake accounts. Even to the naked eye of a single person, half the spreaders of fake news are bots.
It is undeniable that bots are a strong presence on social networks. “An estimated two-thirds of tweeted links to popular websites are posted by automated accounts – not human beings,” a study released by Pew Research Center concluded 1 in April 2018. The same study pointed out that between 9 to 15 percent of all Twitter accounts are automated. It wouldn’t be foolish to assume than a percentage of those accounts are of nefarious nature.
Carnegie Mellon University researchers recently found out that nearly 45 percent of the conversation on Twitter around coronavirus pandemic was coming from bots. “We do see that a lot of bots are acting in ways that are consistent with the storylines that are coming out of Russia or China,” Kathleen Carley, professor at Carnegie Mellon’s School of Computer Science’s Institute for Software Research, told Vice. 2
Twitter told Vice that they took out more than 2200 tweets and “our automated systems have challenged more than 3.4 million accounts that were targeting discussions around COVID-19 with spammy or manipulative behaviors.” I read that bunch of corporate baloney and chortled. Carley pointed out that the bot share of coronavirus conversation activity is more than twice of what bots talked about in case of other major events. Let’s just face it: Like Facebook, Twitter has willfully ignored the problem, which has been well chronicled in the media for a very long time. 3
Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, and Instagram insit on looking at the problem from the lens of the “information” rather than focusing on the fake users and fake accounts. The only explanation I can offer is that this is inentional, because if they start eradicating the bots, their overall user numbers are going to nosedive. The stopping of fake news will lead to a decline in engagement. And that, in turn, will give a real picture of the activity — or lack of it — on social networks. I hate to say this, but they are equally complicit in the “fake news” crisis that is eroding the trust in society at large.
For more context, read some of my earlier posts.
- October 2013: Amplification & the changing role of media.
- February 2018: Facebook’s Fake Account problem is getting bigger.
- July 2018: Fake Followers are social spam.
- July 2018: Companies like people don’t change.
- April 2019: Facebook’s dereliction of duty.
- June 2019: The Cost of Lies