The war against misinformation: Professor Nyhan's technological front

February 4, 2019

As misinformation and “Fake News” proliferates via social media, so too do the campaigns aimed to stop them. As the negative consequences of “Fake News” taint the content of public and private debate, the urge to regulate social media companies increases. But rather than Congress or the media comprising the vanguard in the war against information, employees of social media behemoths may be more viable.

In an essay published on January 24, 2019 entitled “How technologists can help counter misinformation and other social harms” for Defusing Disinfo—a forum for combatting divisive disinformation—Ford professor Brendan Nyhan, along with co-author Patrick Ball, assert that the employees of companies at the center of the debate wield the greatest leverage. Nyhan and Ball argue that given that “skilled computer engineers” are in high demand, they are immensely valuable to companies like Facebook and Google. With such companies coming under greater scrutiny, “fake news” ultimately “threatens the platforms’ ability to retain (and attain) talent.”

“As a result,” according to Nyhan and Ball, “employees within the companies have greater leverage to challenge problematic policies and products than it may seem.”

In fact, employees have led the charge before. Nyhan and Ball allude to massive walkouts and petitions at Google that have led the company to end unpopular programs and alter sexual harassment protocols. While not always successful, the potential effectiveness for such employee-led protest is vast.

Given that “Platform employees know what’s happening inside their companies long before the public regulators,” contend Nhyan and Ball, “[they] can speak credibly to external audiences who might be suspicious of ideological critics of technology firms.”

While not a wholesale solution, Professor Nyhan stresses the impact of employee dissent in regulating misinformation. As a result of their insider status and immense value to the platform, technologists can certainly wield immense influence to alter the course of social media giants.

Nevertheless, Professor Nyhan and Ball plead that given the “great responsibility” of Facebook, Twitter, and Google “we must encourage [employees] to act as advocates for social responsibility.”

To read Professor Nyhan’s complete essay, click here.

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