Being Too Aggressive At Policing COVID-19 Disinformation Risks Breaking The Important 'Collective Sensemaking Process'

from the free-speech-matters dept

As the pandemic got worse and worse earlier this year, many internet platforms sprang into action -- spurred by many calls to do exactly this -- to ramp up their content moderation to fight off "disinformation" attacks. And there is no doubt that there are plenty of sophisticated (and even nation state) actors engaging in nefarious disinformation campaigns concerning the whole pandemic. So there's good reason to be concerned about the spread of disinformation -- especially when disinformation can literally lead to death.

However, as I've been saying for quite some time now, content moderation at scale is impossible to do well. And that's true in the best of times. It gets much more complicated in the worst of times. As we noted a few weeks ago, various internet platforms said they'd be taking down information that contradicted what government officials were saying, but that ran into some problems when the various officials were wrong.

How can we expect internet platforms to know what is "allowed" and what is "truthful" vs. what is "disinformation" when we have a situation where even the experts are working in the dark, trying to figure things out. And the natural process of figuring things out often involves initially suggesting things that turn out to be incorrect.

Professor Kate Starbird has a great piece over at Brookings, detailing just how important social media is in helping people go through this "collective sensemaking process" and highlighting that if we're too aggressive in trying to take down "disinformation," it's likely that much of the important process of figuring out what's going on for real can get lost in the process. To be clear: this is not an excuse for doing nothing. Pretty much everyone agrees that some level of moderation is necessary to deal with outright dangerous disinformation. But as we've spent years detailing, these issues are very, very, very rarely black and white -- and we need that vast gray area to help everyone sort out what's going on.

First, state and platform censorship of certain content could dampen the collective sensemaking process that is vital both for information transfer and for coping psychologically with impacts of the event. Consider “social credit” policies in China that punish social media users for sharing what the Chinese government considers misinformation. These policies may limit the spread of rumors but likely also chill speech, reducing the spread of accurate information and content critical of the government.

Silencing voices that challenge official response organizations—and to some extent just privileging the messages of those organizations as “authoritative voices”—may not be as straightforwardly positive as it seems. During an event like this one, populations need to be able criticize government responses and challenge government claims that conflict with other evidence. Without the early whistleblowers in Wuhan (who were accused of spreading false rumors), this outbreak may have spread further, faster. And in the U.S., there is emerging criticism of early recommendations by the CDC against wearing masks, which may have misled people about their efficacy. These are both cases where information that conflicted with the messages of official government response organizations—information that might have been labelled as “misinformation”—helped us get closer to the truth.

Information sharing is an innately human response to crisis events. Social media platforms enable people to come together and share information at unprecedented scales—and in new ways. In just a few years, these platforms have become part of the critical infrastructure of crisis response. Researchers of disaster sociology remind us that human behavior during crisis events is often pro-social, and recent studies document people using social media platforms in altruistic ways—for example, to find and share critical information and to organize volunteer efforts. These platforms have also become a place where people converge to make sense of the event and deal with its psychological and social impacts.

It always amazes me how so many people think that it's magically "easy" to determine what is and what is not disinformation. While there are some clear cases, most are not. And being too aggressive in taking down content actually risks creating an even bigger problem because it can slow down people's ability to communicate actual details and actual solutions.

As Starbird notes:

Fine-grained policing of content may inadvertently silence the collective sensemaking process that is so vital for people coping with the pandemic’s complex impacts. By focusing on the influencers who select and mobilize content for political or reputational gain and not on the sensemakers who are trying to understand a frightening, dynamic situation, the platforms can significantly dampen the spread of misinformation while still providing a place for people to come together to cope with the impacts of the pandemic.

It's definitely an intriguing idea -- and shifts some of the content moderation thinking: promote those who are part of the "sensemaking" process, and not those just pushing for reputational gain. But of course, figuring out who's who puts you right back at square one of content moderation.

Filed Under: collective sensemaking, covid-19, disinformation, figuring stuff out


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  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 30 Apr 2020 @ 12:10pm

    Picture a world where only objective truths could be uttered.

    We would have the secret of hyperdrive, because you could discern the fundamental tenets of the universe by trying to utter them all - and only the truth would out.

    But alas, we would have no government because none of the fictions upon which it operates could be said.

    And the internet? A very quiet place.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • icon
      ECA (profile), 30 Apr 2020 @ 12:54pm

      Re:

      The specter of history is written by those who survived, if listened to.
      The War on history and time, has a fallacy of Who did what First. Its not the war that started it, its the beginnings we need to know.
      Every nation will describe the time and affects, in their own way. Being able to write down What each see's and compile it into a sort of truth is a dream we can only think about.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 30 Apr 2020 @ 1:05pm

    You cannot stop the spread of disinformation, as it will find ways to spread from person to person. Block it on social media, and it will spread by email, text and phone calls. A good education can help stop disinformation by giving people the tool to evaluate information and carry out their own research.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • icon
      ECA (profile), 1 May 2020 @ 12:24pm

      Re:

      The problem tends to be Those on TV and newspapers that Extol, the truth for themselves and based on few if any facts.
      the 1 I love the most is Illegal Mexicans coming to the USA, and the gangs with them..

      I ask them Why in hell would someone RUN to the USA with all those countries South of the border..and Most are not Mexican. I explain that the USA gov. and the corps have a history of messing things up Down south. And Much of the money we sent to control DRUGS, ended up in the cartels hands.. The history is there, as well as around the world, of how the EU White man has tried to do HIS THING, in other countries, and Messed things up. Or the Corps had an accident, and ran away.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 30 Apr 2020 @ 1:06pm

    Making claims is one thing, but making bank on potentially harmful "treatment" is quite another.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    RD, 30 Apr 2020 @ 1:24pm

    There is only one maxim right now: that which contradicts the "approved" narrative is to be silenced. There is no truth anymore, only a sliding scale of "managed" directives masquerading as objective truth.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      Anonymous Coward, 30 Apr 2020 @ 4:10pm

      Re:

      I think that chlorine remains a poison to the human body no matter what your choice of politics. There is no narrative to this fact, it just is, this is the truth - doubt it at your peril.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Sarcastron, 30 Apr 2020 @ 1:35pm

    It's just propaganda life support

    The powers that be do not want us figuring out what is real. Bad news is always better buried, according to them.

    Rule 1: Right or wrong, the despo... <ahem> authorities are always right.

    Rule 2: If you think authorities are wrong, drop by local censor/propagandist for a second opinion.

    Zero respect for free speech is a corollary.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Lawrence D’Oliveiro, 30 Apr 2020 @ 4:29pm

    They Have Too Much Power

    If they cannot be trusted to exercise that power responsibly, then it needs to be taken away from them.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    Godfree (profile), 30 Apr 2020 @ 4:30pm

    Censorship and Social Credit

    Consider “social credit” policies in China that punish social media users for sharing what the Chinese government considers misinformation.

    Consider this: No matter how you slice it, China is the leading major power democracy. It's is a constitutional, elective, popular, procedural, operational, substantive and financial democracy that exercises popular oversight of policy, not personnel. In none of those senses is the US a democracy.

    The consider this :you cannot have democracy without censorship, as Lee Kwan Yew explained, "The Philippines press enjoys all the freedoms of the US system but fails the people: a wildly partisan press helped Philippines politicians flood the marketplace of ideas with junk and confuse and befuddle the people so that they could not see what their vital interests were in a developing country. And, because vital issues like economic growth and equitable distribution were seldom discussed, they were never tackled and the democratic system malfunctioned. Look at Taiwan and South Korea: their free press runs rampant and corruption runs riot. The critic itself is corrupt yet the theory is, if you have a free press, corruption disappears. Now I'm telling you, that's not true. Freedom of the press, freedom of news critics, must be subordinated to the overriding needs of the integrity of Singapore and to the primacy of purpose of an elected government." A Third World Perspective on the Press. RH Lee Kwan Yew, Prime Minister of Singapore. C-SPAN, APRIL 14, 1988

    Finally, Social Credit is 90% directed towards government officials and corporations. It has little to do with censorship and mostly to do with making life easy for the 95% of people who are non-assholes.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      Anonymous Coward, 1 May 2020 @ 6:26am

      Re: Censorship and Social Credit

      "China is the leading major power democracy"
      LOL - yeah sure. You're serious?

      "you cannot have democracy without censorship"
      Wildass claims require wildass evidence.

      The Philippines? Off on another tangent are we?

      "Social Credit is 90% directed towards government officials and corporations. It has little to do with censorship "
      It is all about control. Governments/corporations that want the people to be happy and smile all the time regardless of reality are an interesting bunch from a physiological point of view. One could write a thesis on just a small part of it.

      Present global economics is a house of cards and falls down quite easily as seen by the recent outbreak, but that social credit score will certainly save the day wont it?

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    tz1 (profile), 30 Apr 2020 @ 7:17pm

    The Starry Messenger

    The Pope would have approved. Indexing books you can't be allowed to read. And deplatforming Gallileo. Dissent, heterodoxy, even heresy might be the truth. It is better to have debate - there will always be fools that follow their errant leaders over a cliff. But everyone ought to be able to state an argument with evidence and reason, and let others attack to find weaknesses or error. The politicization and breakup into two camps, two teams with Coronavirus is not merely divisive, but dangerous, even deadly. We are rarely having discussions, much less active measures to lock down Nursing homes but Kirkland was one of the first epicenters. So many people will die. Meanwhile, for all the screeching about victims and discrimination, the virus does discriminate - against the elderly (check the demographics on who died), but NO ONE CARES! If the virus was killing 70% blacks, or women, or pick your favorite victim minority, there would be an outcry. Instead, it is killing old people and all the talk about discrimination, diversity, virtue signalling and such is exposed as total hypocrisy.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      Anonymous Coward, 1 May 2020 @ 6:33am

      Re: The Starry Messenger

      The elderly will typically have a few medical issues and therefore may be taking medications that reduce the immune system, certainly the immune system deteriorates with age. This seems to be a reason for the high mortality rate among the elderly.

      The disease also has been notes to be attacking people of color at a higher rate. It has been speculated this may be due, in part, to the fact that many people of color lack adequate health care and therefore will have additional health issues, similar to the elderly the virus attacks.

      "all the talk about discrimination, diversity, virtue signalling and such is exposed as total hypocrisy."
      Not sure why this is your conclusion to all the things you typed, was there something on your mind?

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]


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