Renee DiResta: Misinformation is a ‘chronic condition’

The avalanche of false news that gathered speed in 2016 isn’t going away — and efforts that focus only on fixing the problem are missing the mark, one expert says.

Renee DiResta, the head of policy at Data for Democracy and director of research at New Knowledge, has studied disinformation campaigns for years. In August, she participated in a Senate Intelligence Committee hearing on foreign influence on social media.

A clear-cut solution for misinformation might be appealing, but DiResta has found that it doesn’t exist.

“I think we have to think of this as more of a chronic condition,” DiResta told CNN’s Brian Stelter on this week’s Reliable Sources podcast.

Propaganda and disinformation have always existed, but “the issue is that right now, we have an information ecosystem that really facilitates the amplification of that content, that facilitates it going viral,” DiResta said.

Listen to the whole podcast here:

Foreign actors, terrorists, and spammers take advantage of the internet’s fast-spreading pipeline for information. They buy bots to spread messages, amplify manufactured narratives, and post misleading memes for clicks and shares. Researchers like DiResta aim to get ahead of these forces, predict what could happen next, and act accordingly.

“As the actors misuse the platforms, we’re going to be responding much like an arms race,” she said.

But it’s also the responsibility of tech companies to be transparent about when, how, and where they find what DiResta deems the “malign distribution” of content.

The New York Times this week exposed Facebook’s failure to properly deal with the early warning signs of Russian interference on the platform as leaders at the company passed off security responsibilities to others.

“To realize the extent to which they knew and how early they knew that was deeply disturbing,” DiResta told Stelter. She believes that tech companies are improving in their efforts to combat misinformation, but it’s also time for the government to step up.

“I am not advocating for the regulation of ideas,” she said. “I am advocating for oversight. I think what we saw in that article… is that self-regulation with no oversight does not work.”

The government has tried, in part, to police Big Tech. Last fall, Senators Amy Klobuchar, Mark Warner, and John McCain introduced legislation called the Honest Ads Act that would require the same disclosures for online political ads as those on TV and the radio.

Users continue to encounter extreme and false content on social sites, in part because platforms like Facebook are designed to keep people engaged. Algorithms have learned that sensationalist content maintains eyeballs — and ad dollars.

The consequences of such a system are far-reaching.

“Democracy is predicated on an informed electorate,” DiResta said. “Things like misinformation, radicalization, pushing people into conspiratorial groups and then profiting from that because it drives engagement, that’s just not a viable state for the information ecosystem to be in.”