We need to protect democracy: MIT professor

The 2016 election still haunts social networks as the companies brace for the race for 2020.

“Some experts say that a combination of hacking and social media manipulation tipped the 2016 election for Donald Trump,” Sinan Aral, David Austin, professor of management at MIT, told Yahoo Finance’s On the Move. “We know so far that 126 million people were exposed to Russian misinformation on Facebook, 20 million on Instagram, and 10 million tweets on Twitter to 6 million followers.”

Since the 2016 election, there’s been hundreds of reports of false information on Twitter and Facebook. But does social media manipulation affect voters and elections in the United States? That question is still unanswered.

“The reason we don't know is because we're not measuring it,” he said. “We simply don't have access to the data we would need to not only look retrospectively at 2016 or 2018, but to think proactively about 2020.”

Aral said we can measure it with tools that have already been developed, we just need access to the data. In a recent MIT study, Aral and his colleague Dean Eckles broke down four steps that would help experts determine the effects of social media manipulation on voter turn out and voter choice.

According to the authors, researchers need to examine users exposure to manipulative media, observe how that data affected voter behavior, assess the effect of the manipulative messages on behavior and examine the consequences of changes in voting behavior for election outcomes.

After the 2016 election, Facebook struggled with questions about election interference and misinformation on the platform. Since then, the social network has set up “war-rooms” to find false content and bad advertisements. The company also recently cracked down on advertisers. It will require advertisers to submit proof that they are registered with the U.S. government. Smaller businesses will need to provide a verifiable phone number and business email address, the company said.

“Facebook had promised to deliver data to researchers but that has been tremendously delayed,” said Aral.

The bigger problem is these social media companies are being asked “to open the kimono and simultaneously lock everything down and secure data. Platforms will have to become more secure and transparent at the same time.”

“If we fund and pursue this agenda,” said Aral, referring to the proper research. “We will learn how to protect democracy. Without it, democracies will remain vulnerable to foreign and domestic attacks worldwide.”

Valentina Caval is a producer at Yahoo Finance.

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