The 2020 US elections, the Covid-19 pandemic, the ongoing impasse between the US and Iran. With each new top story there is a corresponding story, or slew of stories, about disinformation flowing over it. And, as the Trump-Clinton contest and continuing discussion about Russian propaganda have taught us, the conversation about the flow of purposefully misleading false information is usually one about problems that begin in the digital sphere.
Prior to the 2016 election in the United States—in which well-documented efforts to spread computational propaganda abounded—numerous similar cases had been researched and written about in Ukraine, Mexico, South Korea, and elsewhere. It wasn’t until 2016, however, that that world’s most powerful technology firms began paying attention.
These firms, from Facebook to Twitter, have now very publicly admitted to having a role in facilitating the spread of foreign influence during elections and, more generally, of circulating massive amounts of disinformation the world over. At the same time, journalists and academics have well-cataloged the litany of ways social media and search companies have benefited from, but rarely compensated, the work of reporters, Wikipedians, and educational organizations.
It’s time for the companies to pay the price for the damage they’ve caused. After spending several years researching and writing my recent book The Reality Game: How the Next Wave of Technology Will Break the Truth, I've come to a simple conclusion: Technology firms must create a public trust in the United States geared towards revamping the US institutions they have undermined. The federal government should make Google, Facebook, Twitter, Reddit, and other Web 2.0 powerhouses collectively place $10 billion into a long-term fund, overseen by informed and unbiased third parties, to be used to re-built and re-vamp journalism, fact-checking, information/media literacy education, and other informational resources integral to supporting a healthy democracy.
Historically, such a fund would be comparable to the Tobacco Master Settlement of 1998, in which the nation’s four largest tobacco companies were forced to pay a minimum of $205 billion. This money forced the companies in question to stop predatory marketing practices, supported the creation of the advocacy group the Truth Initiative, and compensated state’s for medical costs due to smoking-related illnesses. It’s true that the failures of Big Tobacco and Big Tech have caused different societal harms. It’s also true, though, that both of these industries ignored emerging research findings about the impacts of their products that would have seriously undercut their bottom line. Both continued to leverage disinformation for profit.
As complicated to enact and oversee this trust would be, as a disinformation researcher, journalism educator, and regular citizen I am sick of hollow promises and half measures. These social media firms have made some progress in responding to the threats of false information. For instance, Facebook, Snapchat, Pinterest, and others are making concerted attempts to combat misinformation on coronavirus. But they still are, as one former Big Tech employee put it to me, “building the plane while the plane is being flown.” Beyond this, platforms’ willingness to moderate problematic information in this particular case only underscores their past and present failures to take similar measures to effectively curb the spread of false information about vaccinations, disasters and elections.
Google announced two years ago this March that they were investing $300 million into a “News Initiative” aimed at working with the journalism industry. But this project and this cash a) is overseen and administered by Google, b) repackages multiple old Google endeavors as new ones, and c) isn’t enough.
When the Google News Initiative offers anything remotely appearing to be renumeration to the Wikipedias or ProPublicas of the world, it is far too little—especially considering that Google’s parent company, Alphabet, reported earnings of $40.5 billion in Q3 of 2019 alone. That $300 million amounts to only about 7 percent of one quarter of one year’s worth of earnings for the firm.
I readily admit that many of my colleagues, collaborators, and fellow researchers have benefitted from partnerships with both the Google News Initiative and other, less formal endeavors like it at Facebook, Twitter, and elsewhere. But when it comes down to it, these researchers—and the nonprofits, NGOs, and universities they work for—have primarily ‘benefited’ in the sense that they’ve been given access to research funds or data that that they should have had access to anyway, were the companies actually giving back to the democracy and public that they’ve preyed upon.
So, how would an independently-run $10 billion fund function? Well, the Google News Initiative has built a pretty good foundation of the types of organizations to give to—including those at the forefront of revamping fact-checking, news innovation, and investigative journalism. Importantly, though this fund must be expanded to other organizations—especially those that give us access to organizations that share high-quality information on issues faced by communities of color, women, the LGBTQ community, and other marginalized voices.
Nonprofit organizations that seek to make empirically driven, objectivity-oriented information more available to the public should top the list: Wikipedia, the Poynter Institute, First Draft, the Ida B. Wells Society, and the American Press Institute among them. So too should top-quality public and not-for-profit journalistic entities like ProPublica, the Associated Press, PBS, C-SPAN, and NPR. When any organization, but especially private news entities, receive funds, they should be held to specific parameters on investigative reporting, media literacy efforts, and innovative mechanisms for delivering the news.
Crucially, such a fund must not be overseen by technology firms, either singularly or in a consortium. Rather, for such a fund to succeed, its governance must be totally turned over to less-biased third-party experts: civil society leaders and academics chief among them. The tech companies ought to pay commensurate to their size and the measured impacts of their platforms’ blunders—Google and Facebook should offer the most significant amounts, with Twitter, Reddit, Pinterest and other digital companies proven to have allowed the spread of disinformation to pay lesser amounts. Researchers are currently working to determine how firms’ simultaneous wielding of predation and negligence has resulted in societal damage—financial, informational, psychological, and political. Initial funding—and data from particular events—from the companies could go towards supporting research and public-interest legal work that works to establish the extent of the damage caused. From there, it is very much possible that the $10 billion amount would go up (remember, Big Tobacco was held liable for over $200 billion).
The $10 billion-dollar amount is a rough estimation based upon my initial inspection of annual operating budgets of an organization like Wikipedia (whose expenses amounted to roughly $90 million from 2018–2019) and corresponding multiplication by 10 in order to ensure the amounts can significantly benefit quality information organizations over time. This fund focuses on repairing the information infrastructure of the United States because the companies in question are based here and it is the case I know the best, but it goes without saying that the companies certainly owe similar debts to citizens of other countries.
Importantly, this is just the scaffolding for the larger trust—the complexities of which should be agreed upon by a coalition of experts rather than one person. The message and outcome, though, must remain the same. Technology firms must give back, in a significant way, to the communities and institutions that have allowed them to thrive, but which they have also seriously harmed.
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