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How to Monitor Fake News
The government should require social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter to use a similar open application programming interface. This would make it possible for third parties to build software to monitor and report on the effects of social media algorithms. (This idea has been proposed by Wael Ghonim, the Egyptian Google employee who helped organize the Tahrir Square uprising in 2011.)
To be clear, the proposal is not to force companies to open up their algorithms — just the results of the algorithms. The goal is to make it possible to understand what content is fed into the algorithms and how the algorithms distribute that content. Who created the information or advertisement? And to what groups of users was it directed? An open application programming interface would therefore threaten neither a social media platform’s intellectual property nor the privacy of its individual users.
Media watchdog groups have long been able to assess the results of the editorial decisions of newspapers and television. Whether those stories express the left, right or center of the political spectrum, they are openly available to independent organizations that want to understand what is being communicated.
Extending this practice to social media would mean that a watchdog group could create software to analyze and make public whatever information from the platforms it might consider important: the demographics of the readership of a certain article, for instance, or whether a fake story continued to be widely disseminated even after being debunked.
After the Mueller indictment, Twitter issued a statement noting that technology companies “cannot defeat this novel, shared threat alone” — referring to efforts like the Russian disinformation campaign. “The best approach,” the statement continued, “is to share information and ideas to increase our collective knowledge, with the full weight of government and law enforcement leading the charge against threats to our democracy.”
This is true. And one effective form of information-sharing would be legally mandated open application programming interfaces for social media platforms. They would help the public identify what is being delivered by social media algorithms, and thus help protect our democracy.
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