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The Washington Post

Three steps to help treat America’s debilitating information disorder

| Ellen P. Goodman
| Karen Kornbluh

Updating digital norms would make organizing the next Capitol assault more difficult. After all, this is no longer an online game — it’s real life. We must act.

The alarm many of us have sounded — that what happens online is not just a game — was sadly validated when radicals spilled out of our screens and stormed the Capitol last week. The insurrection itself was a crude selfie event, an LOL magnet for Instagram likes — except it was a real, violent attack on democracy that cost human lives.

Design flaws embedded in the systems of the biggest tech platforms — especially Facebook, YouTube and Twitter — push disinformation campaigns to go viral rather than prioritizing authoritative content. The platforms lack incentives to address these structural vulnerabilities on their own. But the events of Jan. 6 must move us all to recognize that the reactive game of whack-a-mole no longer passes muster.

If the incoming Biden administration is to make significant progress on any of the other crises facing the nation — covid-19, climate change, racial justice — it will have to treat America’s debilitating information disorder. Fortunately, there are norms and a regulatory tool kit developed over many decades in consumer protection, civil rights, media, election and national security law that can be renewed for the online world.

Online platforms are designed to maximize revenue and externalize costs. It turns out that manipulation and conspiracies sell, and tempering platform design to prevent harm is a cost that platforms have been allowed to avoid. As a result, tech companies too often allow deceptive design that makes it easy to spread conspiracy theories and endanger society.

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