The Breitbart-hosted conspiracy theory video, “America’s Frontline Doctors,” was viewed over a 12-hour period in July more than 14 million times on Facebook and shared by President Donald J. Trump on Twitter before Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube all took it down. The video posted by the alt-right site claims shutdowns are not needed, attacks Director of National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases Dr. Anthony Fauci, and advocates hydroxychloroquine as a COVID-19 treatment.
Just as the Internet enhanced freedom of expression and assembly, providing tools for movements like MeToo and Black Lives Matter to organize, it has also become a vector for conspiracy theories, causing real-world harm and undermining democracy. Foreign election interference, extremist radicalization, conspiracy theory adherence, and targeted harassment have been vastly amplified by social media platforms.
The very public square America needs for democratic debate and participation has been razed and replaced by a funhouse of information distortion. This funhouse plays host to content factories like Breitbart that pose as, and are even promoted by, platforms as independent news operations, but actually publish disinformation or manipulate users. A network of carnival barkers—groups, influencers, and YouTube channels with large numbers of followers—promotes the “articles,” often in coordination. And once the deceptive stories have raised enough interest, algorithms recommend the content to additional users.
Despite the various publicized whack-a-mole efforts to crack down on false content, these systems are thriving; articles from outlets that repeatedly produce false content or fail to present information reliably have seen interactions increase fourfold since the second quarter of 2017. Today, the right-wing information ecosystem has grown to dominate Facebook interactions, as Kevin Roose of The New York Times has detailed in his daily report. As I write this shortly after Labor Day, articles from Breitbart have been shared four million times on Facebook in the past 30 days, roughly three times as much as posts from the official pages of every Democratic member of the U.S. Senate combined.
The Trump Administration has not just benefited from, but has cheered on, these trolls and attacked their competitors—the independent media—trampling on the First Amendment in the process.
President Trump himself has used his bully pulpit to retweet conspiracy-promoting accounts, while denigrating the independent media as Fake News. The Administration has also leveraged the power of the federal government for the same purpose. In 2019, the White House convened a “social media summit” with provocateurs including Ali Alexander, who claimed Kamala Harris isn’t an “American Black,” right-wing commentators Diamond and Silk, who have pushed a hoax conspiracy theory about Facebook censorship, and Charlie Kirk, who has spent years complaining, without evidence, that Twitter is suppressing his follower count. At the summit, President Trump directed his Administration to find “any regulatory or legislative action it can take to avoid censorship” and observed, “I don’t think the mainstream media is free speech either because it’s so crooked, it’s so dishonest. To me, free speech is not when you see something good and then you purposely write something bad. To me, that’s very dangerous speech,” while attendees berated the White House press corps.
These threats were translated into public threats to use antitrust policy to punish companies for not favoring conservative content. This culminated in an Executive Order designed to intimidate by creating legal liability for companies that act against harassing, racist, or other objectionable content. The EO is an even more brazen assault on the First Amendment than President Richard Nixon’s failed effort to strong-arm CBS News and The Washington Post not to cover Watergate. Nixon tried to enlist his Federal Communications Commission to threaten the news companies’ broadcast licenses, which are at least under the jurisdiction of the FCC. The rule of law and respect for the First Amendment put an end to that gambit. Trump is going much further in insisting that his regulatory agencies exceed their congressional authority in order to pressure private platforms, and threatening to replace the FTC Chair because he has declined to act on the White House order.
Recent reports by BuzzFeed News and NBC News found Facebook executives have in fact removed “strikes,” which can add up to penalties, from the accounts of several high-profile conservative pages that had violated Facebook’s rules. Popular Information found that far-right celebrity Ben Shapiro’s The Daily Wire violated Facebook’s terms of service by paying Mad World News to promote its content through a number of pages, some with over two million followers—and each built by exploiting racial bias, religious bigotry, and depictions of violence. While Facebook ultimately penalized Mad World News, it refused to penalize The Daily Wire. Moreover, alt-right outlet Breitbart, the spreader of the COVID misinformation video described above, is a trusted media partner of several platforms.
The pressure from the Administration reinforces the platforms’ economic incentives. The more users click, like, and share, the longer they stay online and the more ads the platforms sell. Groups or channels where users share information they cannot find elsewhere and platform algorithms that promote salacious and outrageous content all keep users engaged and glued to their screens.
But the platforms’ failure to act more aggressively has real-world consequences. The Facebook group Kenosha Guard organized the event “Armed Citizens to Protect our Lives and Property” for the night Kyle Rittenhouse travelled from Illinois to Wisconsin to shoot protestors, and stayed online until after the shootings despite 455 reports. QAnon, the anti-Semitic conspiracy alleging that President Trump is battling Satanist child abusers, has been linked to violent crimes and labeled a potential domestic terror threat by the F.B.I. Facebook has now removed or restricted more than 13,000 QAnon groups, pages, and Instagram accounts, but millions of users across thousands of groups still appear to be organizing online.
To protect democracy, stop increasing political violence, and preserve fair elections, the Internet must be repaired. This repair should start with political leaders who promote the truth and refrain from coercing the press over the content of their coverage.
But there are plenty of commonsense steps to hold platforms democratically accountable and change their incentives. Greater transparency by platforms on how they enforce their terms of service would make it more difficult for these companies to bend rules to accommodate those in power. A circuit breaker system, like that used by high-frequency traders on Wall Street, would give platforms time to evaluate content before algorithms spread conspiracy stories virally. Updates to offline basic rules of fairness so that they apply fully online—including civil rights, consumer protections, and campaign finance—would provide protections against the online trolls.
And financial support for independent public service media would provide access to information needed to hold those in power to account. As the late Republican Senator John McCain warned, “If you want to preserve democracy as we know it, you have to have a free and many times adversarial press. And without it, I am afraid that we would lose so much of our individual liberties over time. That’s how dictators get started.”