For immediate release | Wednesday, June 24, 2020

Tech & Terrorism: Industry Faces Criticism On Capitol Hill For Promoting Divisive Content

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CEP Senior Advisor Dr. Hany Farid Testifies On Algorithms That Drive Revenues & Misinformation

(New York, N.Y.) – Today, Counter Extremism Project (CEP) Senior Advisor Dr. Hany Farid, a professor at University of California, Berkeley with a joint appointment in Electrical Engineering & Computer Sciences and the School of Information, testified before a joint subcommittee of the U.S. House Committee on Energy & Commerce on the effect online disinformation has had on the country. In his testimony, Dr. Farid criticized tech firms, including Facebook and Google-owned YouTube, for their unwillingness to moderate harmful content on their respective platforms. Because much of the content consumption on social media platforms is determined by algorithms, tech firms have an incentive to amplify divisive content, which increases user engagement and drives revenue.

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg has claimed that he does not want the company to be “the arbiter of truth.” But as, Dr. Farid notes, this rhetoric ignores the reality that social media unilaterally and algorithmically decides what content is relevant and promoted every day to billions of worldwide users.

Dr. Farid told members of the subcommittee: “The point is not about truth or falsehood, but about algorithmic amplification. The point is that social media decides every day what is relevant by recommending it to their billions of users. The point is that social media has learned that outrageous, divisive, and conspiratorial content increases engagement … The vast majority of delivered content is actively promoted by content providers based on their algorithms that are designed in large part to maximize engagement and revenue … Many want to frame the issue of content moderation as an issue of freedom of speech. It is not.”

The role algorithmic amplification plays in content consumption is an issue that must be confronted. In March, Dr. Farid co-authored a report analyzing YouTube’s policies and efforts toward curbing its algorithm’s tendency to spread conspiracy theories. After reviewing eight million recommendations over 15 months, researchers determined the progress YouTube claimed in June 2019 to have reduced the amount of time its users watched recommended videos including conspiracies by 50 percent—and in December 2019 by 70 percent—did not make the “problem of radicalization on YouTube obsolete nor fictional.” The study, A Longitudinal Analysis Of YouTube’s Promotion Of Conspiracy Videos, found that a more complete analysis of YouTube’s algorithmic recommendations showed the proportion of conspiratorial recommendations is “now only 40 percent less common than when the YouTube’s measures were first announced.”

In order to address the effect of mis- and disinformation has had on the Internet and society as a whole, all stakeholders must come together to do better. Dr. Farid concluded today: “If online content providers prioritized their algorithms to value trusted information over untrusted information, respectful over hateful, and unifying over divisive, we could move from a divisiveness-fueling and misinformation-distributing machine that is social media today, to a healthier and more respectful online ecosystem. If advertisers, that are the fuel behind social media, took a stand against online abuses, they could withhold their advertising dollars to insist on real change. Standing in the way of this much needed change is a lack of corporate leadership, a lack of competition, a lack of regulatory oversight, and a lack of education among the general public. Responsibility, therefore, falls on the private sector, government regulators, and we the general public.”