Disinformation in the Internet Age (IGF-USA) by Kari Nelson, Impact Investing Intern, University of Virginia

Picture above: the author with (l-r) John Ray, CIR Intern and Craig Newmark, Founder of Craigslist.
On Monday July 24, the Internet Governance Forum USA (IGF-USA) was held in Washington D.C. This event featured “panels, keynotes, and plenaries discussing issues vital to the continued growth of the Internet and increasing its benefits for all,” as described in the program for the day. I attended two sessions during IGF-USA, and wanted to share some highlights from each.

The first session I attended was a plenary session titled, “Nationalism, Disinformation and Free Expression in the Age of the Internet.” As it was described in the program, this panel examined:
“How the internet ecosystem allows nativist content & movements to flourish & increasingly silos people
“How content is weaponized & disinformation used in politics
“How to ensure free expression with any proposed solutions.”

Conversations exploring these issues are extremely important, especially in light of the Russian misinformation campaign during the 2016 election. We should continue to have these discussions.

While this panel didn’t offer any definite solutions, some really interesting potential solutions and areas of exploration were brought up to address America’s recent disinformation problem. Vint Cerf, the Chief Internet Evangelist for Google, suggested early training in critical thinking so children from a young age are taught to question a news story’s validity before they share it on social media. Craig Newmark, the founder of Craigslist and the Craig Newmark Foundation, brought up my favorite potential resolution to this issue, which was to develop some type of credibility score for news stories that would be calculated by networks of fact checkers who would check both the news stories and each other. These, as well as other potential solutions brought up during the panel show that some of the tech world’s best minds are thinking of innovative potential solutions to these problems which is important if Internet consumers ever hope to be able to trust online news stories posted on social media.

Any proposed solution, however, must ensure free expression. I believe Amie Stepanovich of Access Now best summed up this issue. Amie talked about how there are not only the black-and-white areas of news – news stories that are written to deliberately mislead people on one side and fact-checked, credible news on the other – but also a gray area of news between those two extremes. She brought up the example of stories on The Onion, articles that look like news stories but contain false information meant to entertain rather than to deliberately mislead the public. Stepanovich talked about how this gray area will be much more difficult to regulate due to censorship issues. A regulatory body cannot just decide what is “bad content” and take it down, that would be censorship and would violate the 1st Amendment. (Additionally, if the U.S. government was involved in setting the regulation, any censorship would set a dangerous precedent that authoritarian regimes may follow in a much more repressive way.) I agree with Stepanovich that any regulation regarding disinformation must be carefully considered before being implemented in order to ensure that the regulation does not take away the freedom of expression.

Another good point brought up by Ms. Stepanovich was that the panel could have been more inclusive of different viewpoints. The conversation seemed to keep on going back to Breitbart News and the rampant disinformation spread by the site, and often the tone the panelists used when talking about Breitbart seemed condescending. Stepanovich made the important point that in order to pop the conservative bubble – in which one’s social media feed features stories that just reinforce one’s existing biases – we need to understand both sides of the problem, people from Breitbart, for instance, should be included in these conversations so we can try to understand why their writers write stories with half-truths and total falsehoods.

Author with Vint Cerf, Google, and John Ray, CIR Intern.
The second session I attended was entitled, “Promoting a More Inclusive Internet.” This panel looked “at current barriers to an inclusive Internet and” explored “how access can be expanded to underserved areas and underrepresented communities that are still struggling to get access.” One takeaway that surprised me was the geographic diversity of communities with Internet connectivity problems: the three main examples of underserved communities discussed were in New York City, rural Vermont, and rural Rwanda. This is a global issue, affecting both rural and urban communities, and decision makers must adopt the mindset that the connectivity issues in different areas are interlinked if any significant progress is going to be made, as Maya Wiley, the Senior VP for Social Justice at the New School, pointed out.

Another key point made by the panel was that an organization must work with and listen to the leaders of the communities they help. Jane Coffin, the Director of Development Strategy at the Internet Society, summed this point up well when she pointed an organization cannot just go into communities and say “this is the solution we have for you,” but rather an organization should be willing to adapt a solution to a community based on that community’s needs and priorities.

In sum, my takeaways from the panel on nationalism, disinformation, and free expression are:
Potential solutions are being thought of and tried out
Proposed solutions cannot infringe on the freedom of expression, which will make regulating disinformation very difficult
More diverse viewpoints should be included in these conversations so all sides of the disinformation problem are considered.
My takeaways from the panel on promoting a more inclusive Internet are:
Both urban and rural areas, both domestically and abroad, suffer from connectivity issues
Models for solutions to connectivity issues must be flexible enough to take into account input from the communities they affect.

Overall, these were both important and fascinating panel discussions, and I would highly recommend that anyone who is interested in the issues that affect the Internet and its users attend next year’s IGF-USA. It is a wonderful (and free!) opportunity to learn more about Internet Governance issues from the experts.

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