‘Warnings about disinformation on Facebook have the opposite effect’

Social media removed disinformation in the run-up to the US elections. But it’s not solving anything, says Marijn Janssen (TPM). “It’s even worsening the polarisation.”

Janssen: "Social media should parallel how we get on with each other in the normal physical world."

You researched the role of social media in the 2016 American presidential elections. At the time, social media caused great polarisation. What is your impression of this in the current elections?
“It has much more influence now. Politicians have become better at using social media since 2016. Trump is particularly good at it. He often uses the ‘surprise emotion’ technique which involves taking people by surprise and then using it to sow confusion. But Covid-19 is probably making the impact of social media on the current elections even stronger than four years ago. The pandemic is pushing people to interact with others on social media even more.”

Social media have taken measures to stop the spread of disinformation. Facebook placed millions of warnings on messages containing wrong information. Hasn’t this helped?
“I think it’s made the problem even worse and will only increase the polarisation. Commercial interests are now in charge and are deciding what may and may not be seen. Many users will probably accuse them of ‘censorship’, thereby running the risk of heightening tensions. The problem is that there is something fundamentally wrong with the algorithms that social media use. They determine who users come into contact with and what they see. They are not designed for debate and nuance. Social media should parallel how we get on with each other in the normal physical world. You sometimes meet someone who has different opinions than you and with whom you can engage in discussion.”

You and your colleagues are thinking about alternative forms of social media that incorporate much more of that natural process of interaction in the physical world. What will this be like?
“I always think about my children. They game with people they don’t know around the world. These people have different cultures and look at things differently. Conversations on these types of platforms have a completely different dynamism than on Facebook or Twitter.”

So does that mean we should all start gaming? Surely that’s not realistic?
“There is no easy answer and much more research is needed. But there is reason to be hopeful. Ideally these type of social platforms should be designed by both private and public bodies jointly in the future. The private bodies only look at profit and retaining attention, while public bodies alone are too boring, so I think that a combination would work best.”

Editor Tomas van Dijk

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