RALEIGH, N.C. (WNCN) — Are we fighting fake news the wrong way?
From quack COVID-19 cures to half-truths in political ads, news organizations including CBS 17 News have spent years busting myths and correcting so many of the things people unwittingly — or intentionally — get wrong.
A professor from Duke has been checking the facts behind all those fact-checks, and in research published in the journal of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, he says there might be an even more effective way to do it.
“There’s so many people that even if 80 percent of us really made an effort, those other 20 percent can be the superspreaders, spreading this false information, which could make it hard for the rest of us to figure out what’s going on,” said David McAdams, a professor of business administration at Duke’s Fuqua School of Business.
It’s even more important now with Election Day just over two months away and political ads hitting the airwaves and your mailbox.
Approaching the problem of fake news like an economist, McAdams puts some of the onus on the platforms themselves.
He says one counterintuitive thing they could do would be “putting limits, basically, on communication, but in specific, targeted ways,” he said.
One way is to limit the number of times a certain message can be shared from one person to another — also known as limiting its depth of communication.
A second strategy is similar: Cap the number of people who can see a message at one time — in other words, slowing down what’s called its breadth.
“The idea is that this could reduce the spread of false information while still allowing true information to spread,” McAdams said.
McAdams says slowing depth would be the most effective — but also the most difficult to implement — solution.
But tech companies have at times been able to limit breadth. When misinformation raged earlier in the COVID-19 pandemic, Facebook capped at five the number of people or groups to whom users could forward messages. And after people in India were killed due at least partly because of false information spread on WhatsApp, the app enacted a similar limit.
That leads to an obvious question.
The foundations of those companies are instantaneous communication on a massive, widespread scale.
So how can he convince them that the solution is less communication?
“There’s an impulse that many of these platforms have to just facilitate as much communication as possible, and that’s totally understandable,” McAdams said. “But if we recognize that some of the information being shared is false and potentially harmful, it benefits the users of their platforms to improve the quality of information people see.
“And we’re providing one way that could do that, ironically, by putting some limits on communication,” he added.