Even if social media could eliminate disinformation, it won't fix the problem

Even if social media platforms were 100% effective at removing fake news and conspiracy theories, the problem won't go away, says Ethan Zuckerman, associate professor of public policy, communication, and information at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst. The problem can only be fixed by changing the political system so that corrupt powerful people can't benefit from large percentages of the population believing conspiracy theories.

From his essay:

Blaming social media is too easy an explanation for the terrible situation we collectively find ourselves in as a nation. According to polling this week, 7 in 10 Republicans believe Biden was not legitimately elected. For many Republican politicians, there is little incentive to challenge this false narrative: due to gerrymandering, winning their primary is equivalent to winning re-election, and no one wants to alienate 70% of their voters. Whether we "fix" Facebook or YouTube, whether or not we deplatform more QAnon folk or drive militia members into encrypted chat spaces, two more years of elected leaders repeating disinformation is going to hurt us as a society.

It is not clear that Trump's departure from the White House will be a departure from the political stage. So long as he threatens a run in 2024, media outlets will feel compelled to report on his words and thoughts. Ignoring a former president is hard for news outlets to do – ignoring a candidate for president in 2024 is virtually impossible. One of the many fears I am nursing at the moment is that no one will emerge to tell Republicans that they need to abandon the obvious mistruths around Trump's defeat and become full partners in governing a nation that's going through a very rough patch.

In other words, I think we're trying to fix social media in part because it's too hard and too scary to fix our political system. The problem is that even if we build better, more thoughtful, more careful media systems – as I thoroughly believe we should do – they may not be able to help us through a moment where many of our leaders embrace a demonstrably false narrative. This creates an impossible dillema for news media: report on what Republican leaders say and amplify disinformation, or agree not to report on some substantial percentage of our elected representatives.

[Image: By Gage Skidmore from Surprise, AZ, United States of America – Lauren Boebert]