Social Media and Fake News

People’s political, cultural, and religious views can be partitioned by differing attitudes and preferences. One of these is whether a person looks first to the government or to themselves to solve their problems. Any society requires both, but where do you look first?

An important debate is currently raging over what to do about misinformation and fake news spread on social media. I have shared my views earlier that the rules for what can be posted and shared on a social media platform should be largely up to Facebook, Twitter, etc. “Social media and false information”  But what would we like them to do to solve this problem?

The right to state and promote any point of view should be defended at all costs. But what about lies, deliberately invented or foolishly believed and propagated? The government (ours or anyone else’s) is the last place to empower to determine what is true or not. I am also not thrilled at the idea of Facebook, etc., making such determinations. “What to do with social media?”  As one of those who look first to myself and my neighbors for help with problems, in this short note I want to put the spotlight on what can and should be done to better enable each of us individually to evaluate the accuracy of the information we read and especially information we might chose to pass on.

I spotlight (no more than that here) three areas. The first is education. Schools should provide our children with the critical thinking tools to evaluate the accuracy of the information we are reading or hearing. I don’t think that the importance of this can be over emphasized.

The second area is the importance of news reporting standards and related institutions that promote those standards and the importance of choosing information sources that we can trust. Jonathan Rauch has a very useful discussion of these points in The Constitution of Knowledge: a defense of truth“The sources of trust”

The third area is what social media itself does. It can best help our individual assessments of truth by supplementing posts with information on their source and perhaps with warnings of possible inaccuracy with links to other sources.  It is better for business for social media platforms to detect and block trolls and robo accounts and they should certainly be encouraged to do so. But they should not block former Presidents of the U.S. from saying what they want despite a well documented history of lying. They should and do have the right to do so, though in our traditional commitment to free speech, they should not do so. The government might require platforms to disclose their algorithms for how they direct traffic in order to benefit from public discussion of such internal rules. Taking down posts should be a rare last resort.

In short, we need better training in how to evaluate information however we encounter it. And the social media platforms should be as transparent about what is posted there and what is done with it as possible.

With that we more or less get what we deserve.

Author: Warren Coats

I specialize in advising central banks on monetary policy and the development of the capacity to formulate and implement monetary policy.  I joined the International Monetary Fund in 1975 from which I retired in 2003 as Assistant Director of the Monetary and Financial Systems Department. While at the IMF I led or participated in missions to the central banks of over twenty countries (including Afghanistan, Bosnia, Croatia, Egypt, Iraq, Israel, Kazakhstan, Kenya, Kosovo, Kyrgystan, Moldova, Serbia, Turkey, West Bank and Gaza Strip, and Zimbabwe) and was seconded as a visiting economist to the Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve System (1979-80), and to the World Bank's World Development Report team in 1989.  After retirement from the IMF I was a member of the Board of the Cayman Islands Monetary Authority from 2003-10 and of the editorial board of the Cayman Financial Review from 2010-2017.  Prior to joining the IMF I was Assistant Prof of Economics at UVa from 1970-75.  I am currently a fellow of Johns Hopkins Krieger School of Arts and Sciences, Institute for Applied Economics, Global Health, and the Study of Business Enterprise.  In March 2019 Central Banking Journal awarded me for my “Outstanding Contribution for Capacity Building.”  My recent books are One Currency for Bosnia: Creating the Central Bank of Bosnia and Herzegovina; My Travels in the Former Soviet Union; My Travels to Afghanistan; My Travels to Jerusalem; and My Travels to Baghdad. I have a BA in Economics from the UC Berkeley and a PhD in Economics from the University of Chicago. My dissertation committee was chaired by Milton Friedman and included Robert J. Gordon.

2 thoughts on “Social Media and Fake News”

  1. Much of what passes for critical thinking nowadays is propaganda—e.g. that the system is rigged against minorities and other victims for whom the traditional pathways to prosperity (thrift, industry, and individually-created opportunities) are futile. It would be good to get back to the critical-thinking tradition having more to do with things like diagnosing Twain’s three kinds of lies: lies, damn lies, and statistics.

  2. Huff’s “How to Lie with Statistics” is actually about how to think critically about statistical arguments. There are also texts about logic and critical thinking that teach students how to spot fallacious reasoning.

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