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Voters were targeted by disinformation online in 2016. How screwed are we this year?

Data for Democracy’s Renée DiResta talks about the magnitude of the disinformation problem — and what can be done about it — on the latest Too Embarrassed to Ask.

“I Voted” sticker Scott Olson / Getty Images

Before November 2016, most people weren’t thinking about disinformation on social media. Now we’re talking about it a lot — but disinfo expert Renée DiResta wishes the impetus for that swing was less politically charged.

“It’s actually not a partisan issue,” DiResta said on the latest episode of Too Embarrassed to Ask. “The Russia activity very much was; they quite clearly had a preferred candidate and it was absolutely undeniable. But the Russians are one actor operating in this space. There’s a number of others, both on the right and the left.”

Still, progress is being made: Social media platforms like Twitter and Facebook that once refused to police harassment are now starting to measure what “healthy” conversations look like and using AI to identify potential bad actors. These signals aren’t always perfect — as exemplified by Facebook blocking ads for Bush’s Beans because its algorithms thought the word “Bush” was always political — but DiResta said those mistakes can be fixed.

“For a long time, we’ve had this sense that, because of American commitment to free speech, a false positive is a terrible thing, as opposed to a false positive as something that can be remedied,” she said.

Asked about the 2018 midterms, DiResta said there needs to be a lot more information-sharing among tech platforms, independent researchers and the government, and that’s not happening yet.

“Each of the platforms has great visibility into their own platform, and third-party researchers have information and signal from across the platforms,” she said. “We’re looking at dissemination platforms and trends and saying, ‘We think this is inauthentic. You’ve got device IDs, you’ve got IP addresses, you’ve got a number of other signals that we don’t have access to.’”

You can listen to Too Embarrassed to Ask on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Pocket Casts, Overcast or wherever you listen to podcasts.

On the new podcast, DiResta also talked about what regular consumers can do to slow the spreading of disinformation, which she defines as false info “with an agenda.” One of her tips was to figure out how to civilly push back.

“For a while, one of the social norms on the internet was that you didn’t pick fights — not ‘Don’t feed the trolls,’ but even like, when your batty aunt sends you the hoax, you just kind of ignore it,” she said. “I do think there’s something to be said at this point for people pushing back within their own communities, because there’s a lot of evidence that shows that trust in the community, trust in the people that you actually know can have an impact.”

“Saying, ‘Hey, maybe you want to fact-check that’ or ‘Hey, I found this article, this seems to be false information,’” she added. “Just presenting it more compassionately than ‘You’re a fucking idiot,’ doing it a little more graciously within your community, is an option.”

Another one of her recommendations: When you see something online that could be planted by a group seeking to create outrage or discord, think before you retweet.

“They’re preying on your confirmation bias,” DiResta said. “When content is being pushed to you, that’s something that you want to see. So take the extra second to do the fact-check, even if it confirms your worst impulses about something you absolutely hate — before you hit the retweet button, before you hit the share button, just take the extra second.”

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