Online disinformation is getting worse but the government and tech giants still aren't doing enough to fight back

  • Disinformation on social media is only getting worse and its leading to real world consequences.
  • But the US government and social media companies still aren't doing enough to combat it.
  • That needs to change — immediately.
  • Brett Bruen was the director of global engagement in the Obama White House and a career American diplomat. He runs the crisis-communications agency Global Situation Room.
  • This is an opinion column. The thoughts expressed are those of the author.
  • Visit Business Insider's homepage for more stories.

I remember it clearly, during a meeting in the White House Situation Room several senior State Department officials told me to proverbially go to the kids table for attempting to focus the discussion on disinformation. They did not consider soft power to be a hard problem. 

Russia was bombarding Ukraine and other European countries with disinformation. But, the American officials in the room largely dismissed the issue.  They preferred to focus exclusively on arms and the soldiers crossing over the Ukrainian border from Russia.

And now, Even after witnessing its impact on our own elections, we fail to fully appreciate the power of asymmetric warfare by Moscow and many other countries. 

The government hasn't done enough to contain disinformation

The government still doesn't get it. A lot of blame is rightly focused on President Trump and his administration's failure to adequately address the disinformation threat, but Congress isn't performing much better. Recent hearings on Capitol Hill with the CEOs of four major tech firms paid only scant attention to the spread of disinformation on Facebook and the hearing did not even include CEOs of other platforms like Twitter. The performance by legislators on the topic was laughable, as they struggled to convey even an elementary understanding of the technology. 

The US intelligence community's recent assessment was yet another reminder how robustly engaged in our politics Russia, China, and Iran remain. But, even that sobering statement failed to really capture the gravity of what we face.

People are literally dying because of disinformation. First and most prominently, there are those who have gotten sick and even succumbed to COVID-19 because they believed the fake facts circulating online. 

There are also the deadly conflicts being stoked and spread by propaganda around the world. These can seem distant and our reaction to the consequences remains relatively detached.

So, let me focus on a trend that is hitting closer to home:threats and attacks against journalists, activists, and everyday citizens due to disinformation.

Real world consequences

We all know about the Pizzagate conspiracy rumor. The false theory that drove a guy to go all the way up to Washington, DC from North Carolina because he read online about a child trafficking ring run out of a pizzeria. The bullets he fired inside their location were real.

 Also real were the blows inflicted on a Roma community outside of Paris because of a similar accusation that was circulating on social media. Two men in Mexico were burned to death because of false reports of child abuse circulating on messaging apps. 

All of these instances were fueled by unchecked disinformation that is escalated by foreign actors.

And sometimes the harassment starts online after real world incidents. Social platforms can be used to maximize the intimidation factor from threats and even attacks. 

This is what happened to one Saudi dissident and video influencer living in London. After he was brutally beaten by men on the street who told him to stop his criticism of their royal family. Trolls and bots online then continued to harass him about the incident. They were likely also meant to send a message to others who might think about challenging Saudi leaders.

Governments perpetuating disinformation

And it's clear that many governments and politicians are using this culture of disinformation to their advantage to grab onto or maintain a grip on power.

Jamal Khashoggi knew what that state-run intimidation felt like. He was subjected to significant, systematic online harassment before his murder. These attacks are particularly bad on Twitter. 

A New York Times report detailed how the Kingdom's campaign to silence Khashoggi and others involved a large troll army, using them to create fake reports to Twitter flagging content on issues like their war in Yemen. They even managed to get Saudi employees of the company to spy on the accounts of activists abroad. All of this should have set off alarms and spurred the social media giants to take aggressive action against the well-organized abuse of their service. It didn't.

It is baffling as to  why these tech giants are not doing more to stem and stop this kind of misinformation and threats, especially when it's being weaponized by governments from the Philippines to Brazil against their most outspoken critics. 

Instead, we see more of the same superficial steps. Like a game of whack a mole, they take down a few threatening posts or disinformation, only to see new versions reappear from other accounts.

In some ways, this cycle serves the interests of social media companies. They get to claim they've found more fake accounts and harmful content. For them, it's optically optimal to convey that message so they appear to be doing more to confront the threat.

They need to directly take on the systematic manipulation of their sites by governments and other groups. We aren't any longer talking only about inconvenient influence operations. These are concerted, concerning intimidation campaigns. In some cases, they lead to real harm and even the loss of life.

It should no longer be acceptable for Twitter, Facebook, and other social media companies to avoid accountability for the harm being done to those who would dare demand more democracy and fundamental freedoms. Jack Dorsey and Mark Zuckerberg say those were the noble ideals that motivated the creation of their multi-billion-dollar ventures. It's time we hold them to those claims. 

This is an opinion column. The thoughts expressed are those of the author(s).

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