The Perils of Misinformation on Facebook

I found this chapter “The Disinformation Machine” from Siva Vaidhyanathan’s book Antisocial Media both enlightening and disturbing about Facebook’s core design. The ways in which Facebook has worked with authoritarian regimes in the Philippines and Cambodia is shocking to me considering the amount of potential damage this poses to civil society. Of the five ways he describes that authoritarian regimes exploit Facebook, the most concerning was the surveillance of people and harassment of dissidents. Though social media platforms claim to be “neutral”, this cooperation by Facebook seems to directly contradict a neutral stance. I understand that Facebook is a business, and it is not illegal, but it seems to violate many standards of ethics.

Part of what makes the misinformation the most dangerous to society is the way our minds work. Vaidhyanathan touches on this in the chapter, by mentioning how hearing fake news more often makes it more believable. It reminded me of some of the insights on the brain by Daniel Kahneman. We have lazy minds, and our brains tend to oversimplify problems and make decisions without enough information. He describes our brain as having two systems of thinking: System 1 is our automatic and intuitive thinking and System 2 is slower and more analytical. Even if we hear something is fake news, we are more likely to believe it or something associated with it the more it is repeated. The image below represents this idea that we use “lazy” thinking most of the time to make decisions, because it is quicker and requires less mental effort than deeply thinking about a problem.

As a result, I think Facebook’s advertisements are particularly dangerous, especially since many uneducated individuals are exposed to them. If information is repeated to us or made more memorable, even if it is false, it is more persuasive (even for educated individuals). As people have essentially no control over the advertisements or content, there is no way for individuals to prevent themselves from being exposed to misinformation or its effects. It seems to me that more is not better for society in terms of information.

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