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Fact-checking won’t solve much for content platforms

January 13, 2022, 6:11 PM UTC

A much-publicized letter from fact-checking organizations to YouTube CEO Susan Wojcicki, along with growing backlash to Spotify podcast host Joe Rogan, serve as a perfect encapsulation of a never-ending content quandary facing the world’s largest platforms.

First, the letter. About 80 fact-checking groups wrote Wednesday to Wojcicki to complain about YouTube’s failure to police false statements and incitements of violence posted on the platform.

The letter writers propose four solutions to this shortcoming, the biggest of which involves “providing context and offering debunks, clearly superimposed on videos or as additional content.” The context and corrective information would come, at least in part, from fact-checking organizations such as theirs.

Next, Spotify’s mess. The audio streamer faces a call from nearly 260 doctors, scientists and medical-field advocates to “immediately establish a clear and public policy to moderate misinformation on its platform.” Spotify’s current content policies only apply to illegal, stolen, and hateful material.

Their request stems from their belief that Rogan, who signed an exclusive licensing deal with Spotify potentially valued at more than $100 million, “has repeatedly spread misleading and false claims [about COVID-19] on his podcast, provoking distrust in science and medicine.” 

Both cases involve largely accurate accusations of harm caused by YouTube and Spotify. 

YouTube has served as a key driver of misinformation and harmful content, even as the company promotes its efforts to increase content moderation. Rogan, meanwhile, has hosted guests who promote conspiracy theories about the disease, directly and indirectly advocated for treatments that are unproven at best, and irresponsibly passed off anecdotal accounts of individuals’ COVID-19 experiences as evidence of larger trends. 

The two groups’ well-meaning remedy proposals, however, ring a bit naive.

In YouTube’s case, some videos certainly could benefit from superimposing clear, simple, undeniable fact-checks. To videos claiming that Democrats stole the White House in 2020, YouTube could reasonably attach a notice that “numerous audits and court cases have revealed no evidence of election fraud on a scale that would reverse President Joe Biden’s election victory.”

But far more videos contain claims and information that are much more nuanced and subject to debate—making instant, irrefutable fact-checking virtually impossible. Not to mention, YouTube can barely keep up with removing videos that egregiously violate the company’s content policies, let alone improve dubious ones.

Spotify, depending on the precise language of a potential “policy to moderate misinformation,” also could step into a minefield. With Rogan, part of appeal rests in his willingness to push the boundaries of common consensus, sometimes toeing the line of misinformation. 

For example, Rogan has made some logical arguments for why an otherwise healthy 21-year-old might understandably decline to get vaccinated: there’s very low risk for serious health consequences, vaccine-related side effects do happen, and natural immunity confers stronger protection. 

At the same time, Rogan has failed to put the incredibly small risk of severe vaccine side effects in proper context and neglected to share evidence that the shots (pre-Omicron variant) helped stem the spread of the virus to higher-risk people who could fall seriously ill or die from the disease. In this case, Rogan arguably didn’t explicitly spread misinformation, but rather provided incomplete information.

The two calls for change ultimately illustrate why tech platforms’ approach to fact-checking and content moderation remain disjointed—and why good solutions are still hard to come by.

Want to send thoughts or suggestions for Data Sheet? Drop me a line here.

Jacob Carpenter

NEWSWORTHY

The Pegasus problem spreads. Hackers used a much-criticized Israeli firm’s spyware product to gain access to the cell phones of a few dozen journalists and human rights activists in El Salvador, adding to the list of victims targeted with the technology, The Associated Press reported Thursday. The University of Toronto’s Citizen Lab said its analysis of the phones detected NSO Group’s Pegasus spyware, which is increasingly popping up on devices used by journalists, political dissidents, and others targeted by authoritarian government officials. Citizen Lab researchers suggested that members of the El Salvador government were responsible for the hack, an allegation denied by President Nayib Bukele’s administration.

A security summit. Federal officials are scheduled to host executives of several tech giants Thursday at the White House to discuss open-source software security, an issue recently highlighted by the so-called Log4j vulnerability that put the networks of countless organizations at risk, CyberScoop reported. The roster of attendees includes Apple, Facebook, Google, and the Apache Software Foundation, which oversees the Log4j code that groups around the globe use to track activity within their web applications. Federal cybersecurity officials said they have not yet detected significant hacks tied to the vulnerability, which was first publicized last month, though they warned that hackers could have accessed networks and strike in the future.

Back online in Lagos. Nigeria on Thursday ended its seven-month suspension of Twitter within its borders, a ban that likely stemmed from the social media company’s removal of a tweet by President Muhammadu Buhari that some interpreted as a threat of violence against dissenters, The New York Times reported. In exchange for being reinstated, Twitter agreed to set up an office in Nigeria and pay taxes there, among other demands. Nigerian lawmakers have proposed tougher regulations on social media companies in the name of national security, though human rights groups argue the bills amount to free speech violations.

Basic supply and demand. The world’s largest chip maker, Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Company, reported record quarterly profits and plans to ramp up production in light of the global chip shortage, Reuters reported Thursday. TSMC posted fourth-quarter profits totaling about $6 billion, a 16% year-over-year rise, as its partners clamored for phone, laptop, and other electronic chips. The company plans to spend $40 billion to $44 billion on capital in 2022, up from about $30 billion in 2021.

FOOD FOR THOUGHT

The PC revival. The good old-fashioned personal computer made a comeback in 2021, benefiting from the shift to working and learning from home, CNBC reported Wednesday. Sales of laptops, desktops, and work jumped to nearly 350 million, up 15% from the prior year, to reach their highest peak since 2012. Opinions vary on whether the trajectory will hold, but for a moment, the PC is back in vogue.

From the article:

It’s a noteworthy recovery for a sector that had been written off by tech investors and operators as a sleepy field in decline as recently as a few years ago as smartphones became the most important and highest-volume product in the electronics business.

The recovery has been driven by lockdowns and the rise in remote work and learning during the Covid-19 pandemic, as households purchased new laptops and PCs for schoolchildren in virtual classes and businesses bought equipment for employees working from home.

The recovery also happened in a year that was marked by temporary shortages in PCs, especially during the fall, driven by supply constraints from a global chip shortage.

IN CASE YOU MISSED IT

China’s hardline COVID-zero response to Omicron could trigger supply chain chaos, by Grady McGregor and Eamon Barrett

Cathie Wood’s ARK portfolio is headed for a shipwreck—and plunging tech stocks aren’t even the worst of it, by Shawn Tully

Hiring for crypto and blockchain jobs is exploding, by Sheryl Estrada

Austria says use of Google Analytics is illegal because it exposes Europeans to U.S. spy agencies, by David Meyer

A new ruling on Meta antitrust accusations could mean selling Instagram and WhatsApp, by Nicole Goodkind

Apple removes several Wordle apps from its store following confusion among users, by Martine Paris and Bloomberg

BEFORE YOU GO

Now hiring in South Florida. For at least one major tech company, upending the traditional hiring model meant an improvement in employee diversity. Per Bloomberg, Twitter reported Wednesday that its share of Black and Hispanic employees rose from 12.4% in 2020 to 17.4% in 2021, an increase that company executives partially attributed to recruiting candidates who could work remotely from Miami, Texas, and other areas outside of Silicon Valley. It’s a prime example of the old maxim: meet people where they are.

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