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Casting the worst of bullying, lying and hate off social media

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Facebook and other social media platforms cannot stop all disinformation and hatred on the internet. But they can put an end to fanning the flames.

On Tuesday, the former Facebook project manager Frances Haugen gave more than three hours of testimony in front of the congress. She said Facebook knew its platform was being used to spread hatred, violence and disinformation, but it wasn’t going through tough because it would lose money. Haugen has posted tens of thousands of pages of Facebook research and documents that they believe show the company knows its apps are harmful, including Instagram, which can have a toxic effect on teenage girls.

Facebook chairman and CEO Mark Zuckerberg said Haugen’s claims “make no sense”. And Facebook says that users can turn off the content ranking algorithm at any time, although the company doesn’t realize that it’s not easy to do.

Congress should find a way to hold Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, TikTok, and other social media companies accountable for how their algorithms actually promote content that is often harmful.

With the help of artificial intelligence, the algorithms decide which information is displayed to users. If the algorithms are optimized to distribute content that excites and ignites sections of society so that people spend more time on different websites and share that content, it will increase the bottom line of the company. But the content that receives the most clicks, shares and “likes” tends to polarize the most. For society as a whole, people are pushed further into warlike camps who do not listen to one another.

For example, during the COVID-19 pandemic, it seems likely that Facebook’s algorithms contributed to irresponsible claims by anti-Vaxxers and masking opponents going viral and undermining the nation’s efforts to get the virus under control. The algorithms of social media companies also often help spread extremely destructive conspiracy theories.

In all likelihood, this is in part why some normally serene school board meetings across the country are inundated with angry protesters spreading falsehoods and threatening mask policy violence. Social media is rightly accused of undermining the democratic process by disseminating false information, sometimes so effectively that its reach exceeds the reach of legitimate news.

Following heavy opposition from lawmakers, children’s charities and attorneys general, Instagram, owned by Facebook, recently announced that it is putting a plan to develop a version of its platform for children under the age of 13 on hold. Studies have shown that social media, which is full of bullying and debilitating messages about body image and the like, is especially bad for teenage girls.

In developing countries, Facebook has been used to facilitate human trafficking, help drug cartels, incite violence against minorities, and suppress dissent.

It doesn’t have to be like that. Other media outlets, such as newspapers and television stations, have long had to take responsibility for the information they share with the public. Social media companies could be kept to a similar standard to some extent.

Tristan Harris, Co-Founder and President of the Center for Humane Technology, recommends limiting the number of times a post can be shared with just one click to prevent disinformation from going viral. Haugen says Facebook should fix its algorithms so they don’t favor incendiary material. Senator Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., Says it is time to ditch Facebook, but that won’t change the incentive for social media companies to use the algorithms that are causing problems today.

It would be particularly difficult for a single social media company to unilaterally make the required changes as that company would lose audience and profits. Congress needs to pass a major reform that would encourage social media companies to rely less on artificial intelligence and give users more control.

Like other major and seemingly unsolvable problems of the past – car accidents, for example – we cannot wait to remove the scourges of online troll farms, lies and hatred. But just as driving a car, measured on a mile basis, has become less fatal over the decades, so well-thought-out regulations can make the internet a safer place for Americans to live.

Pass the dangerous fringe to the fringe.

Send letters to letter@suntimes.com.

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