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Social Media Disinformation in a Time of Turmoil

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Photo by Tracy Le Blanc from Pexels.

In this time of a pandemic, protests, and a presidential election, how can civil society protect itself from the spread of disinformation on social media? 

Siva Vaidhyanathan headshot Siva Vaidhynathan, Director of the Center for Media and Citizenship at the University of Virginia and author of Antisocial Media: How Facebook Disconnects Us and Undermines Democracy, joins the show to discuss how disinformation spreads and what’s at stake. 

We are also joined by Celeste Headlee, a journalist, author, and speaker who has hosted a number of public media programs, including guest hosting  1A this week on members station WAMU. Disinformation spread by bad actors has always been a problem for journalists. But with the rise of social media, the job of seeking and presenting the truth has become even more challenging. Headlee joins Full Disclosure to talk about disinformation, misinformation, and her most recent book Do Nothing: How to Break Away from Overworking, Overdoing, and Underliving

We will kick off the show with a personal reflection from Anthony Bryant, owner of Little Nomad, a kids boutique clothing store in historic Jackson Ward.

Anthony Bryant As protests of police brutality continue in Richmond, some storefronts along the Broad St. corridor have sustained damages while others have been boarded up for protection. Bryant, shares his experience of being a Black man in America and an entrepreneur with a Jackson Ward storefront. 

Full Disclosure airs live every Friday at 2pm on VPM News 88.9 FM. The show reairs Saturday at 6 PM an Sundays at 8 PM and is available wherever you get your podcasts.

Episode excerpt

The following excerpt was edited for clarity. 

[7:44]

Roben Farzad: So how is social media more nefarious than Netscape Navigator or Mozilla or Microsoft Word? You could spread information any way you want? After all, these are just platforms.

Siva Vaidhyanathan: The difference is algorithmic amplification. Facebook works in a really clever way and a lot of what I have to say about what Facebook does also applies to Google, and its subsidiary or YouTube. Those are the two big giants that we're really talking about here. Think about it this way, Facebook is constantly watching what you do and what you care about. If you have Facebook or Instagram or WhatsApp on your phone, they are also tracking you, everywhere you go. Every store, you enter every place you get gas, every person you visit. So Facebook and Google have tremendous dossiers on all of our behaviors, all of our interests, all of our desires. When you have that kind of detailed information, not just on individuals, but you're able to do data analytics across populations, you can make really amazing predictions about what people might want. It’s going to of course reflect what people have already said they want. If you've expressed interest by where you shop, what you search for, what you read, what you buy, and where you go, that you are into the Boston Red Sox, then neither Facebook nor Google is ever going to confuse you with the Chicago White Sox fan. They're gonna have that kind of detailed information and be able to channel you in to certain areas of attention. Now, I use sports, but this applies to hobbies, it applies to politics. It also applies to medicine, medical information and medical misinformation. If you've shown any inclination, then Facebook and Google are going to see those kinds of things. The thing is, emotions matter. What matters most on Facebook is the stuff that triggers strong emotion. The puppy pictures and the baby pictures, of course, they trigger strong emotions. That's why we signed up for Facebook in the first place, that's the good stuff. The family stuff the love, but also, conspiracy theories and calls for violence, harassment and genocide even as we've seen around the world. These things spread on Facebook really fast, because they strike people and they're keyed to strike people. People respond to them by either commenting on it or liking it or sharing it. That kind of engagement all gets counted by Facebook's computers and the algorithms amplify any product any expression that triggers strong emotions.