Why might the spread of false ideas on social media be a pressing problem?
It seems plausible that political discourse is significantly affected by the way many people now receive their information: through algorithms owned and run by social media companies.
This could have a number of harmful effects, including:
- People’s views could become increasingly far from reality. If voters form highly inaccurate and difficult-to-change views about the world, this could hurt policy over a long period of time.
- Governments could make information readily available — for example, about an ongoing pandemic — but if people cannot tell whether the information they are receiving is reliable, they won’t act on this information. This is an example of a problem caused by a lack of epistemic security.
We aren’t sure how important these problems are, or how to best go about addressing them.
It seems likely that more research would be valuable to:
- Assess how strong the evidence is for social media (or the internet in general) driving inaccurate views.
- Identify the extent to which this could impact the long-term future.
What are the major arguments against this problem being pressing?
The issue is receiving attention from social media companies who are well-positioned (though questionably incentivised) to work on it, which makes it harder for an individual to contribute to progress. For example, Facebook, YouTube, Twitter, and other platforms all have policies for tackling misinformation (though of course we might expect conflicts of interest to reduce the effectiveness of these efforts).
The issue has also been addressed by prominent academics, is expressly political, and is regularly in the news. This reduces the likelihood that this problem is particularly neglected and would benefit from additional people working on it, rather than working on another pressing problem that receives less attention.
Additionally, as far as we can tell, the evidence for social media driving inaccurate views is mixed — we’ve included some articles arguing in both directions just below.
That said, we haven’t looked into this problem that much, and there may be innovative ways people can make a difference here that we’re not aware of.
Learn more about preventing the spread of false ideas on social media
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