Human-Centered Social Networks

This challenge of misinformation and disinformation prompted me to title the first chapter of Beyond Quick Fixes —  “Chaos and Confusion.”  Not only has this infodemic unsettled politics and other areas.  It has actually exacerbated the other three challenges addressed by the book.  People do not know what to believe and who to trust regarding health, education, and energy.

I propose a ten-year, multi-stage plan to transform social networks, starting in the US.  The plan includes five elements:

  • Starting Point (Status Quo): Chaos & confusion
  • Baseline initial Success: Social media limitations
  • Leveraging Baseline: Free speech with responsibility
  • Innovative Leaps: Education on information management
  • Ultimate Success: Pervasive mental immunity

The first step in addressing this challenge is understanding what social media limitations are needed.  This is very controversial.  The social media platforms are all privately owned.  Thus, similar to other media, they have the right to publish or not publish whatever content they choose.  This tends to discriminate against hate speech, for example.

However, a recent Washington Post article reported on efforts to get the Supreme Court to require social media to publish everything.  The social media companies do not want to sell advertisements to customers that may appear next to hateful postings.  Would Proctor & Gamble want advertisements for Pampers to appear on the same screen posting that advocates genocide?  This ongoing debate is unlikely to be settled quickly.

We need to get to the point that free speech is protected but people are responsible for what they say.  The Supreme Court has repeatedly ruled that lying is completely legal.  If the advertisement leads people to die, e.g., oxycontin overdoses, the legal system eventually catches up with the culprits, but almost one million people have thus far died.  Responsibility for the consequences of lying should take much less that 10-20 years.

The key is education on information management.  Students are now being taught how they can determine if information, perhaps unintentionally, is wrong and, especially, if it is an outright lie.  A few experiments have shown that this works.  We need to scale up such programs for all students and all people.  We need a much more savvy population when it comes to misinformation and disinformation.

We ultimately need pervasive mental immunity.  There are well thought-out approaches to this, with positive evaluations emerging.  Andy Norman argues that “A belief is reasonable if it can withstand the challenges to it that genuinely arise.”  An interesting issue is whether the claimant bears the burden of proof or the challenger bears the burden of disproof.

Overall, we need to evolve to a culture that finds lying unacceptable.  Let the liars beware that they will be shunned, perhaps even prosecuted.  For example, companies with misleading ads about the effectiveness of their drugs will experience dramatic reductions of sales for all their products.  Consequences that are socially enforced may be more effective than legal consequences.

Who should be the actors enabling mis/dis interventions.  There appear to be four criteria:

  • Who has the expertise to exercise the intervention?
  • Who has the human and financial resources to support the intervention?
  • Who has the legal authority to perform the interventions?
  • Given all of the above, who has the motivation to act?

This portrays who could intervene, but we need to understand who would intervene.  I expect that the answers to these questions will depend on the context.  Medical misinformation and disinformation might prompt different responses than those for retail or election domains in terms of who is affected, what consequences are likely, and what mitigations are possible.

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