Can we get the facts of life from social media?

Short answer: no.

What follows is one entire chapter from my book, How I Learned The Facts of Life, the title of which is duplicated above. (A very short chapter.)

There’s a reason why I’m posting it here today. I just got an affirmation of my “no” answer to that question (ironically on Twitter, bigtime social media). But first, here’s what I’m saying in the book.

Excerpts of two significant items posted on the same day in April 2018 at 538 Significant Digits, with my bolding:

…One study found that social media platforms are way more effective at driving traffic to purported “news” sites full of deliberately false information than driving people to sites that actually inform readers — 40 percent of visits to fake news sites came from social media, compared to 10 percent for the 690 top U.S. news sites. [From NPR]


Reddit has found and will purge 944 accounts with suspected links to the Internet Research Agency, a Russian troll farm. Luckily, the overwhelming majority of these accounts sucked at using Reddit. A full 70 percent had zero karma — the net upvote and downvote system that fuels performance on the site — and only 7 percent had more than 1,000 net karma points in their favor. [From Gizmodo]

Have I said enough? I mean, has 538 Significant Digits said enough?

Oh, maybe one thing more. Why would anyone think one could get facts from social media platforms? Why would anyone try?

As Kara Swisher opined in “Silicon Valley Won’t Save Us From Trolls,” (December 20, 2018 New York Times, my bolding):

For now, it’s not clear what we can do, except take control of our own individual news consumption. Back in July, in fact, [Renée] DiResta, [a disinformation expert and director of research at New Knowledge], advised consumer restraint as the first line of defense, especially when encountering information that any passably intelligent person could guess might have been placed by a group seeking to manufacture discord.

“They’re preying on your confirmation bias,” she 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.”

Let’s sum up. Social media are fine for:

• Connecting with friends and family.
• Publishing embarrassing photos…which you will forever regret putting out there. (Especially if a friend’s photo of you w/o makeup suggests you’re 103.)
• Aww-ing over and sharing adorable animal videos. Especially baby elephants, with fuzzy hair sticking up out of their little heads.
• Being reminded to wish a brother-in-law happy birthday.

That’s kind of it.

Today, via Twitter, I read an article in MIT Technology Review, about a research study at Carnegie Mellon University’s Center for Informed Democracy and Social Cybersecurity. Here’s one paragraph:

There is no doubt that a global pandemic is a scary phenomenon. Hence, it is not surprising that many stories regarding the event will surface and be communicated. For COVID-19 a number of stories containing inaccurate or misleading information have populated social media.

One of the important things the Center does is track bots that have accounts (so to speak) on Twitter.

You know what a bot is, right? It’s a mechanical creation that posts automatically triggered responses to another post referring to a particular subject of popular interest. Such as, right now, COVID and the fake and dangerous controversy over “re-opening” the country even when epidemiologists and other experts say it’s too soon.

These bots are created by malign forces, such as Russian troll farms, etc., which seek to stir up dissent by pushing false and destructive “information.”

This is what the Center for Information Democracy and Social Cybersecurity has found: usually bots represent between 10 to 20 percent of Twitter account postings. But now, midst-COVID, 45 to 60 percent of Twitter accounts are bots that post false medical advice, advance conspiracy theories and encourage “Re-open America!” screeching and demonstrations.

How many of you buy into that crap?

Well, around half of the GOP does.



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