Hazardous Misinformation: Key Policy Levers
Caroline Friedman Levy, PhD.; Matthew Facciani, Ph.D.; Toria Herd, ABD
While misinformation has long been a component of traditional print and broadcast media, digital technology allows for the frictionless dissemination of false and manipulated content with, at times, acutely dangerous consequences. Misinformation pertaining to COVID-19, linked to worsened individual outcomes and community outbreaks, and to our elections, tied to instances of voter intimidation, suppression and incitement, have been of particular concern recently.
The following recommendations focus on promoting transparency and accountability to mitigate the spread of hazardous misinformation among the majority of Americans who now not only consume, but also create and propagate media. The proposals can be categorized into four threads: (1) industry co-designed codes of practice; (2) redress for digital practices to strengthen legitimate news outlets; (3) a safe harbor for sharing data with misinformation researchers to improve oversight; (4) broad implementation of interventions that boost media literacy and the capacity to discern misinformation.
Codes of Practice with Public and/or Third-Party Oversight
As a point of departure for crafting policy on this topic, multiple scholars call for a new locus of specialized, expert-led federal oversight for digital platforms, such as a Digital Platform Agency.
While legislation would be necessary to create a distinct new regulatory agency, the White House might immediately convene an inter-agency task force engaging expertise within the executive branch, Congress, industry, civil society and academia to clarify and update digital platform policy.
A digital platform task force could lead efforts to develop an industry-wide code of practice which promotes transparency and accountability through commitments including: disclosing political funding in advertising, demonetizing purveyors of disinformation, closing fake and/or bot accounts, and addressing algorithmic biases that reward extremist and/or low-credibility content (EU Commission’s Code of Practice on Disinformation could be used as a model.)
Such a code of practice can be held accountable through independent, third-party oversight.
A Healthy Landscape for Legitimate Journalism
Misinformation thrives when legitimate journalism, particularly local journalism, is on economically shaky ground. Consumers increasingly rely on social media for news, with revenues for digital platforms flourishing and the journalistic sources struggling to survive.
Scholars have called for comprehensive re-evaluation of anti-competitive practices that interfere with a vibrant, reality-based information landscape.
Policymakers might consider leveraging antitrust actions to ensure news sites are reimbursed for journalism posted on their sites. Further, the creation of a temporary safe harbor in antitrust laws would allow news publishers to collectively negotiate with platforms regarding the terms on which their content may appear.
Additional proposals have included (1) levying a digital services tax on major news-sharing platforms in the interest of creating a vibrant public funding model to support local and public interest journalism, and (2) the use of tax incentives to encourage struggling news outlets to transition to a not-for-profit status.
Supporting Research/Mapping Misinformation
Just as academic researchers play a crucial independent role regarding other public health and safety issues, misinformation researchers need access to data that will bolster nuanced policies and best practices; yet researchers warn that digital platforms habitually restrict access to data that could inform oversight.
Scholars suggest policy provisions that allow for a safe harbor for sharing aggregated, anonymized data with academic misinformation experts studying such questions.
Civics Education/Media Literacy
Research confirms that helping media consumers discern the types of dubious information they will encounter -- a practice called “prebunking” — is far more effective than efforts to “debunk” false (yet often legitimate-looking) news stories following exposure. Prebunking exercises can be incorporated into media literacy and civics education curricula as in other countries.
While in pockets of the country, state and local policy makers support media literacy as a critical component of civics education, federal policy makers have yet to ratify such efforts. The proposed federal Digital Citizenship and Media Literacy Act (H.R. 4688 and S.2240) would create a Department of Education grant program to support K-12 digital citizenship and media literacy education.
Critically, researchers note that older adults are particularly vulnerable to digital scams and misinformation. In order to address the most vulnerable media consumers, policy makers can leverage digital platform oversight to ensure that major media-sharing platforms implement validated prebunking exercises into their practices for both onboarding and ongoing users.