Economics and Ethics of Misinformation
I'm going to hand things over now to Mr. Pat Sorek who's been collaborating with our team here at Duquesne in the launch of the Grefenstette Center. Pat please take it away. Thanks Darlene. Uh it's my great pleasure to introduce the next panelists. Uh first off we have Jane Campbell Moriarty.
She is the Carol Mansmann professor of uh Faculty Scholarship. She holds a Chair at Duquesne Law School, she has risen steadily up the ladder of leadership positions at Duquesne Law School and other Law Schools. She's an expert in areas of scientific evidence, law and neuroscience among others. She has won awards for her scholarship and I know she has made singular contributions to excellence at Duquesne University Law School. She's being joined in this panel by
Dr. Michael Quinn. Uh Dr. Quinn is the Dean of College of Science and Engineering at Seattle University. Um he uh it's another one of the hotbeds of software engineering other than Pittsburgh. His work likewise has taken him to positions of academic academic prominence, he covers an incredibly diverse array of subjects in programming and now has lent his expertise and mastery to ethics in the information age. Jane and Michael it's great to have you here and
please proceed. Thank you Pat for the kind introduction. It's a pleasure to have the opportunity to speak to you today about the Economics and Ethics of Misinformation. A few weeks ago the Pacific Coast was ravaged by unprecedented wildfires. More than 5 million acres burned in California, Oregon and Washington and several small towns were consumed by fire. False reports that anti-fascist groups were setting the fires ricocheted across social media.
Lonnie Sargent, from Woodland Washington, posted on his Facebook page tweets from Scarsdale Antifa and Hamptons Antifa. Some Pro-Trump websites featured these stories to promote their candidate. Misinformation on social media was also an issue during the last Presidential Election. In 2016 a group of entrepreneurs in Veles, North Macedonia, found a way to profit from the dissemination of misinformation about the candidates. The most successful of these teenagers were able to use websites, Google advertising and Facebook to earn five thousand dollars a month more than ten times the average income for that country. Here's how they did it. They created a website with a reasonable sounding name like USA Politics, they signed up for Google Adsense, which lets Google auction off advertising space on the web pages. They created fake Facebook user accounts pretending to be Americans. Every day they found
an outrageous story, copied it to their website and inserted advertising spaces into the stories. After that they logged into Facebook, found groups that would be interested in the story and posted links to the story. The entrepreneurs were apolitical, but they quickly found they could make more money by posting Pro-Trump stories than Pro-Clinton stories because Pro-Trump groups had more members and Pro-Trump stories were shared more widely. This diagram shows how it works.
First you create a website, then you post a provocative Pro-Trump or Anti-Clinton story on the website with blank ad space that can be auctioned off by Google. Log into Facebook and post a link to the story in Pro-Trump affinity groups. Other Facebook users read the post. Some of them will click on the link and go to the website,
a few of them will click on an advertisement. When users like or re-post the story, that's when the magic happens. Facebook alerts the user's friends. Some of them will follow the link to the website and a few of them will click on an advertisement. When they like or re-post a story on their own Facebook page, their friends are alerted and so on. Periodically Google sends a payment based on the number of ad impressions and click-throughs. The work of these Macedonian teenagers was overshadowed by the Russian effort to spread disinformation during the 2016 Presidential campaign. Given the closeness of the election,
some people have speculated that this effort was enough to swing the election to Donald Trump, but researchers have not found strong evidence that this was the case. A study by Andrew Guess, Brendan Nyhan and Jason Reifler reached the following conclusions: about a quarter of adults visited a Wake Fake news site at least once, even though they were exposed to fake news these adults still saw plenty of hard news. Fake news did not influence swing voters. The harm of fake news is that it creates echo chambers for extremists as Kathleen Carley explained earlier. Facebook is often the vehicle for the dissemination of fake news. Twenty years ago Cass Sunstein in his book Republic.com, warned that information technology might weaken democracy by allowing people to filter out news that contradicts their views of the world. The situation now is even worse than he imagined. It's not just that people can find media sources
like cable TV channels that align with their views, now we have platforms like Facebook actively pushing content at people. Facebook's goal is to keep people engaged on its platform. It does this by building profiles of its users and feeding them the stories they are most likely to find engaging, meaning the stories that align with their world views, as Michael Colaresi talked about. Over the past 25 years Democratic attitudes about the Republican party have become much more unfavorable and vice versa. This is an example of the political polarization that David Danks
described. To the extent that unfavorable views are based on falsehoods, that's harmful to our Democracy. Let's return to Lonnie Sargent. If you visit Mr. Sargent's Facebook page you'll see lots of posts about trucks and hot rods but he also re-posts stories like this one. Is Mr. Sargent ethically responsible for the misinformation he spreads? You might argue he was acting out of good will trying to warn his friends about a legitimate danger, but a simple Google search returns many sites revealing that posts from Scarsdale Antifa shouldn't be trusted. Instead, Mr. Sargent uncritically accepted evidence that affirmed his worldview,
which is an example of the well-known phenomenon of Confirmation Bias. This is a growing problem. As Pamela Walck pointed out, there's been a decrease in the ability of the public to filter out information aligning with their views. At the very least, Mr. Sargent spread a false rumor, his actions may have panicked some people and encouraged others to take violent action against innocent strangers. In the meantime social media sites are feeling the heat for being conduits for false stories. They are stepping in to stop the spread of information and disinform misinformation
and disinformation. Twitter has suspended the account of Scarsdale Antifa. If you visit Lonnie Sargent's Facebook page today, you'll see a gray window covering the Scarsdale Antifa post, a message warns that there is false information behind the window. If you click on the white CY box you'll find a reference to a USA Today story refuting the rumor. What are our personal responsibilities as consumers of information. First we need to understand that Facebook constructs profiles of its users and attempts to keep them engaged by feeding them content it thinks they will like. That business model leads to the creation of Ideological echo chambers. Second we need to understand Confirmation Bias. Our brains are pre-wired to uncritically accept
information that conforms to our views and filter out information that contradicts one of them. Third we need to be skeptical. All information is not created equal as the author identified himself or herself. What is the author's qualifications? Website may look neutral but that may be deceiving and if uh if the website is affiliated with a particular cause, then you should look at it more skeptically. Have fact checkers weighed in on the story? What do fact-checking sites like Politifact.com, Factcheck.org or Snopes.com say about the story? Are the images authentic, is the author making logical arguments? Before reposting a story, you should deliberate, particularly if the story affects you emotionally.
Make sure you take the time to be a smart consumer of information as described on the previous slide. Reveal this, you should also reveal the sources of the information, ensure your own claims are based on sound, logical arguments and hold yourself accountable by revealing your identity and qualifications. Following these standards would be characteristic of a person who is responsibly consuming and sharing information on the Internet. We can use these standards to examine Mr. Sargent's posting of the Scarsdale Antifa tweet from a virtue ethics point of view. Mr. Sargent didn't check out the Antifa tweet, he didn't discover that no one claims authorship of the site and that it contains parodies rather than substantiated stories. He didn't visit Snopes.com or another
site to fact check the story. In short, he didn't deliver deliberate before re-posting the story. To his credit he put his name on his Facebook page and shared the source of the information. Mr. Mr. Sergent certainly didn't appreciate having one of his posts called out by Facebook fact checkers. This is what he posted after Facebook flagged the Antifa story. Okay it's safe
to say Lonnie Sargent isn't the most sophisticated consumer of information on the Internet, you may have told yourself you never would have fallen for that story. But before you get too smug consider these examples from the mainstream media. Fortune reported C-SPAN was hacked by Russian television, the Washington Post reported that Russian hackers penetrated the US electricity grid, CNN reported on a meeting between Donald Trump's Presidential transition team and the Russian Investment Bank before President Trump's inauguration. NBC news reported that Russia was behind sonic attacks that sickened 26 U.S. diplomats in Havana Cuba.
All of these stories turned out to be false, but they generated a lot of buzz on social media before they were retracted. These stories should serve as cautionary tales for all of us. That we need to slow down, take a breath and spend some time triple checking the facts, to repeat, like what Michael Colaresi said, before spreading juicy stories throughout social media. And I agree, we need to emphasize the development of media literacy literacy schools in our schools. Thank you very much. Thank you very much Dr. Coyne that was terrific.
Um such a conversation about some of these issues, the title of your presentation focuses on the economics and ethics of misinformation. So we've heard a lot this afternoon about misinformation and disinformation and we've heard a little bit about what the difference is between these two. Is one more problematic than the other and is there is does misinformation spread more easily than disinformation? I don't think you can make a generalization. I think the impact depends more on the content than the intent. What were we looking at? You provided examples in your last few slides. Were those misinformation, disinformation or both, and how do we, can we tell? I think I I suppose it's a judgment call because disinformation means sent with the intention of swaying public opinion or propaganda and so to some extent it means understanding the motive of the sender and I would say that's typically a judgment call. Although, if you would say if you can trace it back to Russian interference in an election, I think it would be fair to say that would be a disinformation campaign. But if you're talking about particular individuals um
I don't you know I I'm a little bit uncomfortable saying for sure what's in that person's mind when they're actually distributing the or re-posting a story. With the exception of the Russian Bots, but we're pretty sure exactly, so let's get back to the economics piece of this uh discussion we're having. Um who else is making money off of this? Are social media giants making money off of this? Are influencers? You know we're all familiar with people like the Kardashians who influence millions apparently. Who's making the money off of misinformation and disinformation? Well I think certainly the two biggest money makers would be Alphabet, the parent company of Google and Facebook, right. So they're selling the advertising and they're making their money by keeping people online engaged and exposed to to advertising so that they can make money either off the impressions or off the clicks. So those are the two biggest money makers although there's certainly plenty of private individuals who are also making uh money off of it even today. As uh we as we saw the Macedonian entrepreneurs in the last election.
So let's assume Facebook, we don't have to assume we know, Facebook's making money off of misinformation, disinformation. Google may be Alphabet, Alphabet owns Google I guess. How do we stop that and furthermore should we stop that? Is that up to Congress, society, people who use it? What do we do about this, who stops the flow of money? You know there are groups uh, there was a Stop Hate for Profit uh movement in July, there were more than a thousand organizations that said they would stop advertising on on Facebook during the summer. Now in the end it didn't put a very big dent dent in uh Facebook's revenues, I think their quarterly revenues were down maybe one half of one percent as a result of this campaign which uh was launched. But there I think Facebook understands that there
it has some responsibility it can be bad for the brand if it is seen as a conduit for fake news or for misinformation. And and so I I do think that to some extent that even if their motive is simply to try to protect the brand or to keep people on the platform, I think that they have had some motivation to to do some work. So if you think about what they're doing to reduce the economic incentives, right, because I know this contradicts what an earlier speaker said, but you know if you go to Facebook, they think a lot most of this information or a great deal of is pushed by an economic incentive so if they can remove the money making from the from the process then they could reduce the spread of the information. So they're trying to reduce the creation of you know fake accounts
so you can't have Macedonians pretending to be Americans. And they're uh you know now using fact-checking groups to go in there and actually suppress stories. They suppressed 40, 40 million posts in the spring with false information about Covid-19. So are they doing a good job?
I don't know, I I'm not convinced they're doing a good job. I think they're working the problem, but it's a very big problem. Um it's it really is remarkable how many people um really believe a lot of false information and simply cannot be shaken from those opinions, no matter how many fact-laden stories you provide them with.
Which brings us to the ethics part of uh your title, which is the title is Economics and Ethics um you know as are these compatible or are they utterly incompatible. We there's a joke about as you know business ethics and legal ethics that these are oxymorons. As a Professor of Legal Ethics I like to think that's not true, but is economics inconsistent with ethics or not? I think if your goal as a company is to maximize profit, then you're going to run into you know more ethical issues for sure. You're going to be crossing some ethical boundaries
and this example was brought up earlier, but you know if Facebook can make more money by feeding people stories that they like, because that keeps them attached, then why should they feed people a variety of stories even though that might be to create a social benefit which gives people exposure to a greater diversity of political views. So if Facebook were really interested in social good, they might be trying to make sure that people encounter ideas that they disagree with. But that's not their model, their model is to build a profile of a user and then to try to feed the user things that they're going to enjoy seeing. So are we expecting too much perhaps from a social media platform to have really strong ethical guidance that governs what they decide to be posted and not post? I think different companies have different philosophies and I think in general it's fair to say that corporate corporate vision of success or social responsibility I think the typical view now is different than it might have been 50 or 60 years ago and Milton Friedman was talking about maximizing profit as the only goal of a corporation. So I think many corporations are looking to have uh to do more than just return shareholder value but they're thinking about making the world a better place and and all that. And so I think you're going to find a spectrum
of views from a variety of companies. I think Facebook is fairly notorious for being out there on the side of let's try this and we'll pull back if there's a big public protest. I'm thinking about their Beacon campaign way back in 2007 which was one of their earlier uh advertising campaigns and there was there were such howls of public protest that they withdrew that the the Beacon offering because it just clearly crossed the line. It was not something that was going to keep people on the platform. Well if you remember the origin of Facebook was uh
ranking women's looks at Harvard, I guess it's uh not a big stretch to see where we are. Um so you and I have talked uh before this we we discussed the famous New Yorker cartoon about the dog sitting in front of the computer and he looks at his little dog friend to the side and he says on the Internet no one knows you're a dog. Um this is a really big problem uh for two reasons, the first is of course the anonymity right you can be anybody you want on the Internet. And the second is expertise. Unlike books for example which have publishers, editors, hopefully fact checkers, we have no idea often where information originated um and and two we often don't know who is and who is not an expert. I'm I think I'm a very good consumer of social media information
but I'm sure everyone thinks that. Um and I've noticed I don't know who exactly I'm following on on Twitter at times for uh health information. I usually try to dig deeper but often it's hard to tell. Is this concept of expertise simply too old school to survive in the social media world? Does everybody have an opinion and is everybody's opinion valid? I mean I teach expert evidence so I immediately think no it's not. But what do you think? Well of course there are people with more expertise than others and we still need experts. I agree with you, it can be harder at times to
identify the experts and it really comes down to being skeptical, particularly if it's a person that you don't know well or you know doesn't have a track record, doesn't have a reputation. It's so important to be able to if you see some information to try to chase it upstream where did it come from. I one of the tools that I think is just so amazing and this is an example of computer scientists perhaps helping address the issue the problem, is that Google has a image reverse image search. So you can take the UR, you can click on an image you see in a in a web page
and you can get the URL of the image and then you can feed it into images.google.com and it will tell it will show you other places where that image has occurred and then you find the earliest use of that image. And that's a great way to find out places where people have taken an image from an older event and they're using it to characterize a new event. So for example, some of the stories about the rioting in Portland Oregon are using uh pictures taken from natural disasters from years ago. But they're using those images to to give the idea that the city is in chaos and the you know the entire city's being burned down or something like that.
Do we have some questions, look at the, um, at the questions on the chat line. Um one is from Leela Toplek what's the responsibility of tech companies that are not social media networks but whose consumer or enterprise technologies may be used to amplify or share misinformation, for example marketing clouds, CRMs, etc. You know I had a conversation with Brad Smith who's President of my of Microsoft last year and he was talking about the role of companies and of course Microsoft is really working hard to be seen as a as one of the good guys and and you know promoting values in technology and he was he was comparing a lot of what they do as sort of a public utility in the sense that you know it can be you know you can't just simply withdraw a service because some people might be using it uh poorly. And so uh it it is a difficult issue to to think about, how they roll. I think you know it was part of me that feels like saying if we could just slow down a little bit and there could be more thinking more critical thinking before things get passed along, that would help a lot should technology be used to slow things down. But of course news means
current right and if you slow down something too much then it's not news anymore. So there's a tension between wanting to know what's happening, wanting to know what what is the news, right and this idea that there's such a competition to get on board, to be out there to break the story or to that that that pulls in the opposite direction. So it's really a case like so much in human life where we have to try to hold the tension and find that middle ground between one extreme and the other. One of the problems of course is that we all, if we slow down one piece of social media or the internet, another one arises to take its place. You there's there seems to be no way to it's it's a whack-a-mole problem I think when you start you know trying to push one site down the other one's gonna pop up more quickly.
We're in a largely unregulated environment and that's why a lot of this is happening. And I think many companies I mean it's been interesting to see in the state of Washington how Microsoft has stepped forward and proposed certain regulations uh around the use of artificial intelligence or facial recognition or other things, simply as the way they put it is to to be seen as guard rails right, like we just can't we don't want to go off the road with this thing. And so some companies are advocating regulatory guard rails to at least keep the the behavior within some norms of reasonableness. But then uh uh you know the question is will uh you know is that the way that that you know that our legislators want to want to go so or the public will support. Yeah, well thank you very much. I I think am I, are we Professor sir we're running out of time here. I think we're at the end and I think we're very close to keeping the schedule. Um so I
think I will um just turn it back over to Darlene, we've been great about uh keeping to the schedule and it would be great if we continue to do that. Thank you Jane and Michael for some really topical and highly informative exchanges on those issues, especially about Facebook which as we know covers uh one 1.8 billion people and crosses more state borders than any other uh feature of human life. So thank you very much for that. Uh um Darlene, you you uh got it now? Yes thank you so much um and thank you Dr. Quinn uh and and and Professor Moriarty for that wonderful session.