Factually: Why are people not more outraged about disinformation?

Greetings from Washington, where the problem of disinformation is generating heightened alarm on the part of U.S. politicians and policy experts as the 2020 campaign approaches.

The question is whether and how that alarm could translate into action by Congress or the agencies to prevent a repeat of the Russian disinformation campaign that affected the 2016 presidential election.

When this issue comes up, people often point to the polarization and paralysis plaguing the current Congress. Forty bills, they note, have been proposed to deal with election security and disinformation surrounding elections, and none of them have seen any action.

But here’s another way of looking at it. Congress often needs a crisis to act. What if lawmakers aren’t motivated to do something about this problem because the people who elect them just aren’t very motivated? What if Americans aren’t outraged enough about the disinformation problem to put pressure on elected officials to take action?

Some experts even say there needs to be a new patriotism around the disinformation threat, given its threat to democracy.

This lack of outrage was a theme that came to the surface during a symposium hosted this week by the Federal Election Commission, which is charged with enforcing campaign finance laws, and whose chairwoman, Ellen Weintraub, expressed concern about the integrity of the 2020 election.

While participants in the event, which you can watch here (if you have five hours to spare), explored a range of potential solutions to deal with the disinformation threat, underneath the policy options and proposed government actions was an almost plaintive concern that the American people aren’t involved enough.

“The animating energy for us today was our shared sense that there has been an inadequate level of public outrage or official response to the foreign disinformation threat,” said Eileen Donahoe, executive director of the Global Digital Policy Incubator at Stanford University, which along with PEN America co-sponsored the event. She and other participants said a “society-wide” approach is needed.

Why aren’t people outraged enough about the problem? Is it possible that people trust tech platforms too much? Or do they trust themselves too much, to be able to discern the true from the false? An issue cited by Donahoe is the “bizarre ways that foreign disinformation mixes with authentic civic discourse, domestic media, political commentary and with the speech of our own elected officials.”

Another reason, one cited by Rep. Stephanie Murphy (D-Fla.), is that people who live in a polarized society see the issue through a partisan lens.

“A significant percentage of Republican voters don’t believe Russia interfered at all, but of those who do, some don’t seem particularly upset about it,” she said. “The U.S. will never muster a whole-of-society approach if the whole of society doesn’t first acknowledge the problem.”

She said the issue has to be reframed as a nonpartisan one.

. . . technology

  • BuzzFeed News reported that Google’s apps and mobile homepage have been surfacing stories that deny the science of climate change.

  • A BBC investigation found that YouTube is running advertisements for major brands alongside videos promoting bogus cancer cures. Those results were consistent for searches in 10 languages.

  • Last year, Daniel wrote about how misinformation spreads on Line — one of the most popular social networking platforms in Southeast Asia. Now, the company is working with the Associated Press on a series of educational videos about misinformation.

. . . politics

  • The New York Times showed how more than 200,000 Twitter accounts were part of a Russian-style disinformation offensive by the Chinese government against Hong Kong. The data used in the article came from Twitter.

  • Two U.S. senators are calling on Google to remove misinformation from Google Maps that directs women seeking abortions to pro-life clinics. The move came after the publication of a Vice News storythat found searches for abortion providers in at least 21 cities surface misleading results.

  • Meanwhile, in California, lawmakers have proposed a bill that would make it illegal to distribute a selectively edited video or photo that’s intended to mislead people within 60 days of an election.

. . . the future of news

  • Facebook and Microsoft are teaming up with academics on a challenge to build deepfake detection technology.

  • In a move to address the potential spread of demographic misinformation in 2020, the U.S. Census Bureau is asking Americans to send in any rumors they see about the national count. The bureau is also partnering with Apple and Amazon to surface credible information on the companies’ Siri and Alexa voice assistants.

  • The opening session of the Online News Association conference in the U.S. was about misinformation around the world. There was also a session about how to improve your digital investigation skills. Read more about those sessions here and here.

The Facebook Ad Library was created to provide advertising transparency and is definitely a place where fact-checkers should look for claims. The amount of misleading information there could be huge.

Full Fact experienced that recently.

On Sept. 3, the British Conservative Party posted an advertisement on its Facebook page claiming it was “giving schools a record £14 billion, leveling up per-pupil funding across the country.” The ad showed a picture of a teacher in a classroom and a BBC logo in the left corner.

But the real BBC story — linked in the ad — said the figure was £7.1 billion. Full Fact spotted the falsehood and wrote a detailed article about it. The story went viral. It was picked up by the CBC, Der Spiegel and The New York Times. A spokesperson from the Conservative Party had to apologize and the BBC put out a statement informing it is still “looking into this matter.”

What we liked: Full Fact’s team called attention to a source of misinformation fact-checkers usually forget. The Facebook Ad Library can be used even by those who don’t have a Facebook or Instagram account to search the collection of all ads running across its products. There, anyone can see data about every active and inactive ad run since May 2018. And Facebook promises to keep them for seven years.

  1. A story from Anya Schiffrin in Media Power Monitor paints a good picture of the current landscape of fact-checking and misinformation.

  2. Researchers at Indiana University have come out with new softwarethat helps people identify and track how bots amplify messages on social media.

  3. Going into the 2020 election in the U.S., some officials are more concerned about disinformation from China and Iran than Russia.

  4. Ever wonder when you’re supposed to use certain reverse image search tools over others? Domain Tools has a chart for that.

  5. CJR’s public editor for CNN spoke to Daniel Dale, the network’s prolific fact-checker, about his process, his outlook on Trump and the 2020 election.

  6. The Financial Times profiled how the Internet is fighting online misinformation. (Subscription required.)

  7. A nonprofit association representing the tech giants has rejected a proposal from Australia’s competition regulator recommending the companies adhere to a code of conduct related to inaccurate information.

  8. Speaking of Australia, Russian disinformation about 5G communication networks has reached the country.

  9. Last week, Poynter’s MediaWise project traveled to Nebraska to teach teenagers how to spot misinformation online. A local TV station covered the trip.

  10. The first dataset for Facebook’s partnership with misinformation researchers has finally been released.

That’s it for this week! Feel free to send feedback and suggestions to factually@poynter.org.

Daniel and Susan

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