The Misinformation Dilemma


Science-Based Medicine

Steven Novella on January 19, 2022

Is there a workable solution to the social media dilemma?

Institutions are still struggling with the challenge of dealing with deadly healthcare information. This challenge was not caused by social media, but certainly was exacerbated by it. And it also did not suddenly become relevant during the COVID pandemic, but was brought into sharper relief. What we are experiencing now is actually part of a much longer trend, and is essentially a conflict between freedom on the one hand and quality control for the purpose of public good on the other. A solution at either extreme seems unlikely, and perhaps there is no ideal solution. But there still may be some practical things we can do to live with a compromise in the middle.

Democratization of information

The easy and free spread of information did not begin with social media or the internet. In fact the same angst many are feeling toward the uncontrolled spread of information was felt when the printing press was introduced. The printing press, however, is also credited with the European Renaissance and the Scientific Revolution (at least as one major factor). Thomas Paine’s 47-page tract was also a powerful influence on the public support for declaring independence from England.

Over the last few centuries technological advance has led to increasing ease and speed at spreading information and ideas. With each new technology, telegraph, radio, television, film, the internet, and social media, the same arguments over the benefits and perils of democratizing information resurface. It is arguable that the net effect of democratizing information has been positive (if you consider science and democracy good things). The primary perceived downside was in the ability for commoners to challenge authority, something which we would view from our modern perspective as a good thing. Part of science was destroying the old paradigm of basing claims on authority and substituting it with basing claims on logic and evidence.

Ironically the democratization of information allowed for the scientific revolution, but science itself has now altered the calculus. This is because naked authority has been replaced with genuine and valid mechanisms of quality control. Essentially, from science to journalism and the media in general, traditional authority was bypassed with technology that allowed for widespread dissemination of information. A new cultural balance was achieved, however, with the rise of editorial filters and institutional quality control to replace authority based on history and culture. In a free and open society anyone could make their case, but in order to really spread information you typically had to get past some editorial filter. The real cranks were left shouting on the street corners, but they we generally not getting published or giving lectures at universities.

TV and radio changed the balance further, not by removing the filter (not anyone could get on prime time television) but by blending information and entertainment, until there was no meaningful distinction between the two. In fact what is ostensibly presented as news could be weaponized as entertainment to reach a wide audience and carrying a payload of ideological propaganda. Even without social media, this trend has created social change and an unsettling dilemma. Social media now adds a new layer. First, it obliterates any remnants of an editorial filter. Literally anyone can communicate with a wide audience. The cranks on the corner are given a megaphone. Further, computer algorithms designed to maximize engagement also maximize radicalization, favoring misinformation if anything over quality control.

This seems qualitatively different than the printing press, not just an extension of it.

Freedom vs quality control

At the optimistic “total freedom” end of the spectrum are those who argue that we should have completely unfiltered spread of information, and the marketplace of ideas will sort it out. The cream will rise over time to the top, and we just have to tolerate the noise at the bottom. Any attempt at quality control is really just authoritarian censorship, and should be vigorously opposed.

But recent scientific evidence regarding how information spreads online, and basic observation of the world we are currently living in, makes this view seem unrealistic to the point of being naïve. There are countless surveys showing the degree to which the public believes demonstrable nonsense, based on the misinformation. It’s also clear that social media has given psychopaths and con artists the keys to the kingdom. It now pays, big, with little upfront investment, to spend a lot of time and energy crafting and spreading misinformation online. And not just isolated bits of misinformation, but a web of distortions and lies that are woven into a psychologically compelling narrative. The “cream” that is demonstrably rising to the top is that information which tends to sell products and radicalize its consumers.

The problem with “all quality control is censorship” position is that it is outdated. It is based in a world in which authorities were not legitimate, but were based solely on historical power. But now we have genuine mechanisms of quality control, such as peer review and rigorous science. Those too are eliminated when we remove all filters.

This is the dilemma we currently face – how do we collectively maintain effective quality of information while simultaneously allowing the free spread of information? There is no single answer, but there are a number of options. Always the best option, because there is no real downside, is education. Public education must teach not only scientific literacy but critical thinking skills and media savvy. We each need to have our own skeptical filters. But this type of education is a generational project, and will always be incomplete.

Many experts recommend adjusting social media algorithms so that they do not favor misinformation, and in fact disfavor demonstrably wrong claims. This way people can say whatever they want, but their reach will be limited. This will partly return us to a time when editorial filters limited the spread of nonsense. Anyone could still get on public access TV if they really wanted, but no one was guaranteed the right to air their views to millions.

Still there is the debate about banning harmful misinformation. This debate has been brought to the fore by the pandemic, as there is a body count and considerable social disruption clearly attached to the spread of health misinformation. The question is whether it is reasonable to outright ban information at the extreme end of the spectrum that is both harmful and wrong. Does freedom and democracy really require that massive platforms are given to utter (and harmful) nonsense?

The trick is – who gets to decide what is nonsense. Those arguing against this measure correctly point out that there is a risk here, that authoritarians will use the mechanisms and justifications of banning harming misinformation to censor politically inconvenient information. Also, the very fact of banning information will be used to sow further conspiracy theories about government and other institutions. Is there a compromise or balance here where the worst information can be completely removed from specific platforms?

I think so. If you are convicted of fraud, your right to engage in certain commercial activities can be limited. You can be banned from, for example, trading stocks or selling investments. Conviction is a transparent process, with rules and mechanisms of appeal. We need a similar process that is transparent, based on agreed-upon rules, and with mechanisms of appeal. If someone is “convicted” of spreading harmful misinformation (not political ideas or unpopular ideas – but demonstrably wrong facts) then removing those false and harmful claims may be justified. This already happens to some degree, when it comes to libel, for example. We recognize the harm that libel can do and provide a legal remedy to remove the libelous information from the public view and penalize those who spread it. A similar process and standard can apply to “libeling the truth”.

Again, this is all tricky territory. But this is a conversation we need to have. Recent changes in mass media have destabilized our society, and we need to find some way to achieve a new equilibrium if we are going to be able to deal with modern challenges, like a deadly pandemic.

Founder and currently Executive Editor of Science-Based Medicine Steven Novella, MD is an academic clinical neurologist at the Yale University School of Medicine. He is also the host and producer of the popular weekly science podcast, The Skeptics’ Guide to the Universe, and the author of the NeuroLogicaBlog, a daily blog that covers news and issues in neuroscience, but also general science, scientific skepticism, philosophy of science, critical thinking, and the intersection of science with the media and society. Dr. Novella also has produced two courses with The Great Courses, and published a book on critical thinking – also called The Skeptics Guide to the Universe.