The QAnon conspiracy theory found a shocking amount of mainstream support. Black Lives Matter protests were exploited to spread lies about violence coming to Small Town, USA. And officials had to fight destructive wildfires and false stories about antifascists at the same time. And, of course, there was the misinformation superspreader event: the COVID-19 pandemic.
The consequences have been dire. But we don’t have to let it continue in 2021.
Yet, the companies were still hesitant to act. Sure, some nefarious users were banned. But, as long as the content wasn’t illegal or causing immediate, quantifiable harm … why would they take action?
Judging by the timing of some of this year’s biggest misinformation-related policy changes, it seems most of the major social media platforms gave themselves a “deadline” to do something before the 2020 U.S. presidential elections.
Then, in March, the coronavirus pandemic hit the U.S. There were anti-mask demonstrations. People drank bleach. And some people refused to believe COVID-19 is real.
“There was just so much conflicting information about the virus and the fact that everyone had time on their hands [due to lockdowns] to actually look at it all,” explained Gita Johar, a professor at the Columbia Business School. “People were sharing everything just trying to make sense of what was going on.”
In a recently published study, Johar found that people who “feel a sense of exclusion and uncertainty,” perpetually or during an unpredictable time, like a pandemic, are more likely to spread what they see on social media.
“In fact, we found that people seem to be able to tell what’s true and false apart, but they still share information regardless,” she said.
And there were plenty of trolls, conspiracy theorists, and politicians willing to flood scared, confused, and angry users with false information.
“All the COVID misinformation actors have to do is sow doubt,” said Imran Ahmed, CEO of the nonprofit Center for Countering Digital Hate. “They adopted the Steve Bannon tactic: ‘flood the zone with shit.’ And that’s what we’re seeing now. Actors are flooding the zone with nonsense.”
Fadi Quran, campaign director for the nonprofit activist organization Avaaz, which has done extensive research on disinformation online, agreed, saying, “Trump and others within the Steve Bannon network have been pushing claims about voter fraud for years.”