Facebook co-founder, Chairman and CEO Mark Zuckerberg testifies before a combined Senate Judiciary and Commerce committee hearing. Zuckerberg, was called to testify after it was reported that 87 million Facebook users had their personal information harvested by Cambridge Analytica, a British political consulting firm linked to the Trump campaign. (Photo by Alex Brandon-Pool/Getty Images).

Liar liar, platforms on fire: the rise of misinformation and what to do about it

Social media has provided access to more information than ever, but at the same time it’s harder than ever to tell what’s real and what’s fake. InternetNZ policy advisor Nicola Brown looks back at the year Fake News broke the internet. 

Bad news spreads fast. In 2018 we saw what might be the breaking point of social media platforms. Their business model makes money through advertising, and to know the ads are working requires engagement, clicking, liking, reacting. Each and every post requires attention from users. The best way they’ve discovered to garner that attention? Outrage. Content that users can’t help but engage with.

Then there are the algorithms that deliver content to our eyeballs, trained to demand our attention and to keep us online. And just as businesses have learnt how to utilise social media, so have hostile nations intent on undermining democracy. So that’s all fun.

Not many people would honestly tell you that social media sparks joy right now. Should we thank it and let it go? Or can we bring back the joy?

Dictionary.com’s word of the year was ‘misinformation’, and rightly so. At InternetNZ we have taken a look at the big stories of last year that have informed our understanding of social media in 2018, to see what we can do while the world sorts this out. The real-world repercussions of misinformation are fatal, and social media companies are failing to keep up.

Disinformation, information created maliciously with the aim of influencing others, has taken root on various social media platforms. Bad actors have been able to utilise social media to sow division and spread disinformation. The platform companies didn’t have the ability (or, on occasion, the will) to address what these bad actors were doing. That had real world consequences.  

Facebook was used by the Myanmar government to spread disinformation about tensions between its citizens to incite violence against the Rohingya people. Facebook has admitted that it failed to curb the spread of hatred on its platform. The case raises questions about what happens when a platform like Facebook enters a new country, whose political landscape Facebook does not understand. Its lack of local knowledge and investment in local content moderators allowed the proliferation of hate and disinformation to continue.

Myanmar youths browse their Facebook page at an internet shop in Yangon. Facebook has removed hundreds of pages and accounts in Myanmar with hidden links to the military as the company scrambles to respond to criticism over failures to control hate speech and misinformation. (Photo: SAI AUNG MAIN/AFP/Getty Images)

In India, WhatsApp was used to spread rumours which led to the deaths of five people. WhatsApp publicly stated that it was “horrified by these terrible acts of violence”. They didn’t have a solution. They called for help from the government.  

Everyone is grappling with the real-world implications of a digital menace. And some countries have started to address the issue – Malaysia introduced the Anti-Fake News Act 2018, while Singapore is looking to outlaw fake news.

New Zealand is not immune to the social media chaos

In the past year we’ve seen how hot button issues like the national debate on the use of 1080 have attracted foreign Twitter accounts posing as New Zealanders with a vested interest.  

We also experienced our own taste of online division when Lauren Southern and Stefan Molyneux hit our shores. David Hood (@thoughtfulnz) gave a talk at KiwiCon 2038 on what happened after Phil Goff sent his infamous Tweet defending the choice to not let Southern and Molyneux use a council venue. He found that most of the tweets in condemnation of Goff’s decision were from overseas accounts, and most in support were from New Zealanders.

And misinformation also made its way to the Beehive. Judith Collins mistakenly tweeted a fake news story about a child sex abuse law France was about to pass. She asked the prime minister to denounce the law, which barely resembled what was reported in the fake news story. This led to the the prime minister being forced to use her post-Cabinet press conference to discuss fake news. We’re half a world away, but misinformation connects us all to the latest internet craziness. New Zealand is not immune.

The future of social media is at stake

Even with all of the issues with social media, people still find it a valuable place in which to gather, to communicate, to share. But one person’s hate speech is another person’s free speech. And one person’s legitimate protest movement is another person’s Russian influence campaign.

In July, Facebook removed an event page for ”No Unite the Right 2”, a counter protest to the Charlottesville Unite the Right march held in 2017. This was created by the Russian influence peddlers the Internet Research Agency, in order to further sow political discord. But while the event was initiated by bad actors, legitimate supporters had taken it over. Was Facebook right to delete content being used by real people, even if from a fake seed?

It’s not just the Russians lying to you. How do we know know that a celebrity’s favourite detox tea isn’t #sponcon? On Instagram, celebrities and influencers are paid massive amounts of money by brands to advertise their wares. We’re even seeing the rise of wannabe influencers pretending they have sponsorship deals in order to build their credibility.

And the people who pay for it are also facing false information. In October, advertisers sued Facebook for inflating the metrics about how well video performed on Facebook. For a few years now, Facebook has been pushing video as a great way for advertisers and news media to reach audiences. And they listened. Thousands of journalists were made redundant as media companies made apivot to video based on misleading data.

A participant in the Unite the Right rally blares a horn at protestors on Aug. 12, 2017 in Charlottesville, Virginia. (Calla Kessler/The Washington Post via Getty Images)

SO WHAT DO I DO?!?

Systemic problems can’t be solved by personal responsibility; using a metal straw instead of a plastic one won’t stop the glaciers melting. But you can improve your own social media diet. Firstly, play with those feed settings! If there’s a news organisation you trust, you can select the Facebook option see stories from them first.

Context check what you share. What is the source of the information, who is the author? Did the person who first retweeted/shared it do so in anger, in support, in parody? Is it a meme based on something you *assume* to be true? Context check!

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And finally, think about the values you hold and the values you are feeding. Jess Berentson-Shaw articulated this best in 2018. Model the type of democracy you want to see.

2019 looks to be a watershed moment for social media, and it’s time for all of us to have a conversation about what we want the future of the Internet to look like. As part of this conversations, InternetNZ will be releasing a think piece in March 2019 on misinformation and what Aotearoa should be doing about it.

We’d love to hear from you. Feel free to email me at nicola@internetnz.net.nz with your thoughts.

This content was created in paid partnership with InternetNZ. Learn more about our partnerships here.


InternetNZ helps New Zealanders harness the power of the internet to drive positive change because we believe in an internet that is open, and secure for all New Zealanders. If you like what we have to say, come join us

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