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What does accountability for misinformation in digital age look like?

Media Contact

Becka Bowyer

The Supreme Court appears likely to reject an effort to limit the federal government from pressuring social media companies to remove harmful posts and misinformation on platforms.

Drew Margolin

Associate Professor

Drew Margolin, professor of communication, studies the way people communicate online and the role of accountability, credibility and legitimacy within social networks.

Margolin says:

“We do not have a conceptual model of what accountability for misinformation in the digital age is supposed to look like. In simple terms, if a social media account posts a false rumor that, according to well documented government research, will be highly dangerous, who should be responsible for flagging this and deciding whether to take it down, or even de-promote it in the platform's algorithm?  

“Thinking this through is complicated by two factors. First, no human party ultimately makes these judgments. The company's decisions are implemented by machine algorithms that influence thousands of posts in ways that no one can understand. So, if the government pressures the company successfully, it can exert pressure on speech beyond the bounds of its intention – for example, valid information that sounds like misinformation from the past can be suppressed, too. That suggests ‘no restrictions’ are a good idea. But communication in the online environment is highly adaptive at scale. Any avenue that is anointed as legally legitimate for spreading misinformation – because it is illegitimate for the government to challenge it – will not only ‘bless’ a particular message, but it will also invite a cottage industry that attempts to put out more misinformation messages of this form – just like hackers look for vulnerabilities in systems.

“Absent a model that attempts to reconcile these issues in a more comprehensive way, we will continue to see lawsuits like this, as well as politicians changing their position with respect to them, with little actually getting done."

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