Disinformation in the COVID Age

Disinformation in the COVID Age

The dangers of online disinformation is by now common knowledge, but that hasn’t seemed to stop its spread. The current COVID-19 crisis has highlighted both the pervasiveness of disinformation and the danger it poses to society. We are in a situation where we need to rely on information for our health and safety. Yet, when accurate and false information sit side-by-side online, it is extremely difficult to know what to trust. The Director-General of the World Health Organization recognized this problem as early as February when he said that, alongside the pandemic, we are also fighting an “infodemic.” From articles, videos, and tweets discounting the severity of the virus to full-blown conspiracy theories, COVID-19 disinformation is everywhere.

Despite the steps social media sites have taken  to combat disinformation about COVID-19, an Oxford study found that 88% of all false or misleading information about the coronavirus appear on social media sites. Another report found that, out of over 49 million tweets about the virus, nearly 38% contained misleading or manipulated content. The reason is largely because social media sites like Twitter and Facebook are trying to put a Band-Aid on a systemic issue. “They’ve built this whole ecosystem that is all about engagement, allows viral spread, and hasn’t ever put any currency on accuracy,” said Carl Bergstrom, a Professor at the University of Washington. Simply put, the root of disinformation is not just based on the content being shared, but also on the deep-seated practices used by social media to keep users engaged.

How Social Media Platforms Can Fix This

A new report by The German Marshall Fund takes the problem of disinformation head on and outlines what social media platforms can do to combat the problem and foster reliable and accurate reporting. Here are just a few of the steps the report recommends:

Design With “Light Patterns”

Websites and social media platforms often use “dark pattern” interfaces and defaults to manipulate users and hide information about how the site operates. Light pattern design, therefore, involves transparency about how the site operates. This involves using defaults that favor transparence, and even using labeling to shows the source of information, whether the account posting the content is verified or not, and even if audio and visual content has been altered.

Consistent Enforcement of Terms of Use

While all social media platforms have in-depth rules for user activity, these terms are generally inconsistently applied and enforced. By setting a transparent standard and consistently enforcing that standard, social media platforms can more successfully combat disinformation and other toxic online activity.

Independent Accountability

Instead of using government policy to regulate content, the U.S. should set up a technology-neutral agency to hold platforms accountable for a code of conduct focused on practices such as light pattern designs. By focusing on overseeing positive platform practices, the government can avoid having a hand in decisions about what content is “good” or “bad.”

What You Can Do Now

However helpful these changes to social media platforms are, the truth is we aren’t there yet. Fake and fiction stand side by side online, with no immediate way to discern which is which. When taking in information, it is up to you to figure out what is reputable and what is inaccurate. With the large amount of COVID-19 disinformation swarming the internet, its more important than ever to use our critical skills in two specific ways.

Be Self-Critical

Our personal world views, biases, and emotions shape how we take in information. When looking at content online, it’s important to think about your own motivations for believing something to be true or not. Ask yourself why you think something is true or false. Is it largely because you want to believe it or disbelieve it? When we read something online that makes us angry, there is something satisfying about sharing that anger with others. Before sharing content, ask whether your desire to share it is an emotional response or because the information is accurate and important. If it’s predominately coming from your emotions, reconsider if it’s worth sharing.

Be Critical of All Content

In general, we should initially read everything with a degree of skepticism. Doubt everything and be your own fact checker. Look at other websites reporting the same information. Are any of them reliable? Are they all citing the same sources, and, if so, is that source reputable? Don’t share an article based solely on the headline. Read the full article to understand if the headline is based on fact or is just speculation. Look at what sort of language the article is using. Is it largely opinion based? Does it cite reputable sources? Is it written in a way that is meant to evoke an emotional response?

 

Months into the COVID-19 pandemic, we understand how our in-person interactions can have a negative impact on ourselves and those around us, but it’s important to also understand how our interactions online can lead to similar  outcomes. Given the stupefying amount of disinformation about the coronavirus circulating online, it’s more important now than ever to be think critically about what information you’re consuming and be aware about what you say and share online.

How Social Loneliness Could Effect Privacy Practices

How Social Loneliness Could Effect Privacy Practices

Social media was designed to connect people. At least, that’s what those behind these sites never stop of telling us. They’re meant to create, as Mark Zuckerberg says, “a digital town square.” Yet, as it turns out, the effect social media has on us seems to actually be going in the opposite direction. Social media is making us less social. 

Last year a study by the University of Pittsburgh and West Virginia University was published showing links between social media use and depression. And now the same team has released new study that takes things a step further. The study found that not only does social media lead to depression, but actually increases the likelihood of social isolation. According to the study’s findings, for every 10% rise in negative experience on social media, there was a 13% increase in loneliness. And what’s more, they found that positive experiences online show no link to an increase in feelings of social connections.  

These two studies make clear what we may already feel: the form in which social media connects us ends up leaving us more isolated. And, as strange as it may sound, this could have a profound impact on how we view our privacy. At root, privacy involves the maintenance of a healthy self-identity. And this identity doesn’t form in a vacuum. Instead, it is shaped through our relationship to a community of people. 

So, to the extent social media is isolating, it is also desensitizing to our notions of ourselves and to the world which surrounds us. When we lose a sense of boundaries in relation to community then anything, including the value of  privacy, can go out the window.  

And this can turn into a vicious cycle: the lonelier you feel, the more you’re likely to seek validation on social media. Yet, the more you seek that validation, the more that sense of loneliness rears its head. And often seeking this type of social validation leads to privacy taking a back seat. Earlier we wrote about an increase in the success of romance scams, which is just one example of how a sense of loneliness can have the effect of corroding privacy practices.  

While these studies don’t exactly mean we should go off the grid, it’s clear that to understand and value ourselves, we need at times to detach from technology. And, from a business perspective, there are lessons to be learned here too. While technology can make communication more convenient, that shouldn’t translate to having every conversation through a digital platform. Pick up the phone. Have lunch with a customer. Talk to them instead of selling themHaving more personalized conversation will not only translate to stronger business relationships but may even have an effect on the value placed on privacy as well.  

Nothing Up My FB Sleeve

Two weeks ago,  Mark Zuckerberg penned an essay detailing Facebook’s shift towards a more privacy-focused platform. “As I think about the future of the internet,” he writes, “I believe a privacy-focused communications platform will become even more important than today’s open platforms.” For Zuckerberg, this predominantly means focusing efforts more on his private messaging services (Facebook Messenger, Instagram Direct, and Whatsapp) by including end-to-end encryption across all platforms.

 

But given mirad privacy scandals plaguing Facebook over the past few years, it is important to look critically at what Zuckerberg is outlining. Many of the critiques of Zuckerberg that have been written focus primarily on the monopolistic power-grab that he introduces under the term “interoperability.” For Zuckerberg, this means integrating private communications across all of Facebook’s messaging platforms. From a security perspective, the idea is to be able to standardize end-to-end encryption across a diversity of messaging platforms (including SMS), but, as the MIT Technology Review points out, this amounts to little more than a heavy-handed centralization of power: “If his plan succeeds, it would mean that private communication between two individuals will be possible when Mark Zuckerberg decides that it ought to be, and impossible when he decides it ought not to be.”

 

However, without downplaying this critique, what seems just as if not more concerning is concept of privacy that Zuckerberg is advocating for. In the essay, he speaks about his turn towards messaging platforms as a shift from the town square to the “digital equivalent of a living room,” in which our interactions are more personal and intimate. Coupled with end-to-end encryption, the idea is that Facebook will create a space in which our communications are kept private.

 

But they won’t, because Zuckerberg fundamentally misrepresents how privacy works. Today, the content of what you say is perhaps the least important aspect of your digital identity. Instead, it is all about the metadata. In terms of communication, the who, the when, and the where can tell someone more about you then simply the what. Digital identities are constructed less by what we think and say about ourselves, and far more through a complex network of information that moves and interacts with other elements within that network. Zuckerberg says that “one great property of messaging services is that even as your contacts list grows, your individual threads and groups remain private,” but who, for example, has access to our contact lists? These are the type of questions that Zuckerberg sidesteps in his essay, but are the ones that show how privacy actually functions today.

 

Like a living room, we can concede that end-to-end encryption will give users more confidence that their messages will only be seen by the person or people within that space. But digital privacy does not function on a “public vs. private sphere” model. If it is a living room, it has the equivalent of a surveillance team stationed outside, recording who enters, how long they stay there for, how that room is accessed, etc. For all his failings, we would be wrong to assume that Zuckerberg is ignorant of the importance of metadata. In large part he has built is fortune on it. What we see in his essay, then, is little more than a not-so-subtle misdirect.

Privacy is coming out of the shadows. Should businesses be scared?

Just a few months after Facebook’s highly-publicized data breach California passed the strongest regulations on the collection and sale of personal information that the U.S. has ever seen. Around the same time, the EU passed the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) that even surpass the new regulations in California. Then, late last month, Google admitted to a breach of information on their Google+ platform that potentially affected over 500,000 users.

What businesses now need to realize is that such high-profile scandals will likely have direct impacts not simply in Silicon Valley, but on a national and even global scale.

In fact, on October 22, Google, Facebook, Apple and Microsoft are endorsing a federal privacy law based upon a framework developed by the Information Technology Industry Council.

To help businesses better understand the impact privacy regulation may have for them, we have put together the top three implications these new regulations could have on businesses in the coming months.

Consumers will play an active role in how companies collect and use personal information

Perhaps the strictest aspect of California’s new regulations is the central role consumers will now play in deciding how (or if at all) their information is used. Consumers now have the right to request from companies not only what information is being collected (even allowing the consumer to request an accessible copy of that data), but also for what purpose. Moreover the law allows consumers to request that companies deleted their personal information and can even opt-out of the sale of such information.

A broader definition of protected private data.

The California Privacy Act substantially broadens what is considered ‘personal information’ and therefore increases the scope of regulations beyond what we generally consider tech companies. Under the new regulations, ‘personal information’ now includes the consumers’ internet activity, biometric data, education and employment information, as well as information on the consumer’s purchases and personal property. Broadening the definition of personal information therefore implicates far more businesses than the likes of Facebook and Google. Now, any company that collects or uses such consumer data will be subject to regulation.

Targeted advertising will become less effective

 The effectiveness of targeted online advertising campaigns relies on the extreme specificity enabled by access to consumer data. As Dipayan Ghosh of the Harvard Business Review points out, these regulations will have any impact on any business that makes use of online advertising. Targeted campaigns will become less precise and may therefore “significantly cut into the profits [ ] firms currently enjoy, or force adjustments to [ ] revenue-growth strategies.”

 Any business that has customers in California need to be seriously considering how they will now comply will these new regulations. What’s more, discussions of putting in place federal regulations are well underway and it is possible that California’s new private information laws could form the basis of such regulations. It is therefore in the best interest of any business that makes use of consumer data to seriously consider what impact such regulations could have in the coming months and years.

 What should businesses be doing now, even if they don’t fall into under California or GDPR privacy regulations?

  1. Know what data you are capturing and where it is stored.  Review your data flows in your customer, accounting, employee and other databases so you know what you are capturing, the reason you are capturing it and where you are storing it.  Keeping an accurate data inventory is critical. And, it makes good sense.
  2. Be Transparent to your users with what you are doing with their data.  Review your privacy policies.  Make sure they are free of legalese and clearly explains what you will doing with the data, who (if any) will you share the data with and what rights the user has if they want to have the data changed or removed.  Try not to think of this as a compliance exercise. Think of it as customer engagement. By doing so, you can create a better relationship with your customers because you show that you respect them and their information.
  3. Ask before you Capture — Where possible, get the user’s consent prior to capturing the data.  You will have better customers if they opt in to the relationship rather than finding themselves in one.

Privacy does not have to be viewed as compliance or even a restriction on doing business.  In fact, successful businesses going forward will use privacy as a tool for increased customer engagement.