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Self-regulation of social media platforms failing to curb disinformation, says new report

Published on
11 Oct 2019
A new report from the Oxford Technology and Elections Commission (OxTEC) has found many of the self-regulatory measures taken by social media platforms have failed to prevent the spread of disinformation.

‘The Market of Disinformation’, a report produced by cyber intelligence specialists Oxford Information Labs on behalf of OxTEC, examines the impact of algorithmic changes made by social media platforms, designed to curb the spread of disinformation, through the lens of digital marketing.

The report highlights some of the techniques used by campaigners to attract, retain and persuade online audiences.  It also sets out recommendations for the UK Electoral Commission.

Key findings

  • Despite over 125 announcements in three years aimed at demoting disinformation and junk news, algorithmic changes made by platforms like Facebook, Google, and Twitter have not significantly altered brands’ and companies digital marketing
  • Election campaigns continue to generate a significant amount of organic engagement, with people typically accessing content that has not been supported by paid placement
  • Political campaigns blend paid and organic material to maximise reach and minimise spend
  • There has been growth in digital marketing techniques combining online and offline data to reach specific audiences.

Stacie Hoffmann, cyber security and policy expert at Oxford Information Labs, said:

“Today’s successful online campaigns effectively blend organic and paid-for elements, standing or falling by the levels of engagement they provoke amongst users.  Self-regulation of social media platforms has only succeeded in achieving higher profits for the platforms by reducing organic reach and increasing the amount of paid content required by advertisers to reach new audiences.”

Professor Philip Howard, Director of the Oxford Internet Institute (OII) and OxTEC Commissioner said:

“The report highlights how the algorithmic changes made by social media platforms have been inadequate in curbing the spread of low-quality content online. Those actors spreading disinformation have quickly identified algorithmic changes and have adjusted their strategies accordingly.    Fundamentally self-regulation by social media platforms has failed to achieve the promised public policy benefit of improving the quality of the information ecosystem”.

The Oxford Information Labs report also sets out a series of recommendations for consideration by OxTEC on how to protect the integrity of elections. The recommendations are based on developing and implementing guidance related to four distinct areas, digital imprints, sanctions, financial reporting and campaign spend, foreign interference and location verification.

OxTEC, convened by the Oxford Internet Institute at the University of Oxford, consists of academics, researchers, technology experts and policymakers, and was established to explore how to protect the integrity of democracy in a digital age. It is due to publish a full report shortly.

Download the full report here.

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