Social media's "engagement"-based algorithms are intrinsically hospitable to conspiracies and fake news

Renee DiResta is part of an interdisciplinary group that has tracked disinformation campaigns online for years, advising the Obama White House on the use of social media to spread conspiracy theories; she helped brief Congress in advance of the current hearings on the use of the internet to spread misinformation to influence the 2016 election.

DiResta's interest started with her college thesis on the use of propaganda in the 2004 elections in Russia, and then through her observations on the growth of algorithmic trading — which relies heavily on spoofing and anti-spoofing — during seven years on Wall Street. She then did a stint as a VC with O'Reilly Alpha and then took a break to start a family.

That's when she started to come into contact with — and investigate — the anti-vaccine movement, whose messages found a very hospitable home on Facebook. As she mapped the "peer-to-peer misinformation" she was being fed by Facebook's algorithm, she began to publish on the subject, and her work tied in with work on the use of social media by Islamic extremist groups.

"It was this great case study in peer-to-peer misinformation," Ms. DiResta said. Through one account she created to monitor anti-vaccine groups on Facebook, she quickly realized she was being pushed toward other anti-vaccine accounts, creating an echo chamber in which it appeared that viewpoints like "vaccines cause autism" were the majority.

Soon, her Facebook account began promoting content to her on a range of other conspiratorial ideas, ranging from people who claim the earth is flat to those who believe that "chem trails," or trails left in the sky by planes, were spraying chemical agents on an unsuspecting public.

"So by Facebook suggesting all these accounts, they were essentially creating this vortex in which conspiratorial ideas can just breed and multiply," Ms. DiResta said.

She Warned of 'Peer-to-Peer Misinformation.' Congress Listened.
[Sheera Frenkel/New York Times]

(via 4 Short Links)