Who Should Squelch Lies and Trolls on Social Media?

June 30, 2017 at 8:25 pm | Posted in Disinformation, Enemies of Freedom, Presidential election | Leave a comment
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John Bauer (1882-1918), artist, in 1915: "Look at them," troll mother said. "Look at my sons! You won't find more beautiful trolls on this side of the moon."

John Bauer (1882-1918), artist, in 1915: “Look at them,” troll mother said. “Look at my sons! You won’t find more beautiful trolls on this side of the moon.”

By now you have read and seen the damage caused by the flood of misleading or harassing material on social media. Vulnerable teens have committed suicide, ordinary adults have become fearful and intimidated, fools have become enraged vigilantes, racists have infected those with weak mental immune systems, and President Chump has been elected.

Elizabeth Dwoskin’s recent article in the Washington Post describes how Twitter and Facebook and Google are trying to weaken the flood.

Colin Crowell is the Vice President of Policy at Twitter. Dwoskin’s article quoted something that Crowell had written recently, and it is worth discussing here, because it states a misunderstanding that is prevalent in all of the major social media companies.

Dwoskin wrote, ““We, as a company, should not be the arbiter of truth,” Crowell wrote earlier this month. He emphasized that Twitter users — “journalists, experts, and engaged citizens” — tweet side by side to correct public discourse every day in real time.”

The fallacy in Crowell’ argument is that the corrections are not really in real time. They are never soon enough. The misleading material reaches the public before any retractions or corrections appear, and sits out there, at least briefly unopposed.

Correcting misleading material is like closing the barn door after the horse has escaped.

Only a tiny fraction of those who see the misleading material will ever see the retraction or the correction.

Even among those who do see the correction, the first-seen version often makes the deepest impression.

The timing is such that most of the simple-minded and all of the malicious will propagate the uncorrected version.

Sociopathic liar that he is, Donald Trump regularly exploits this weakness of all of the media: public appearances, TV, the print media, and the social media.


That the misleading material is seen first, and the stickiness of first impressions – those are inconvenient truths for the social media giants. The social media giants do not want the expense that would be required to pre-disinfect the stream that flows onto their platforms, nor do they relish the potential legal battles that any gate-keeper may face.

Good technical and legal solutions are not yet known. But at least the social media should drop the self-serving illusion that they can evade at least some gate-keeping role.

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