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Is Deplatforming Enough To Fight Disinformation And Extremism?


When Donald Trump was still in office and had a working Twitter account, just one tweet could change an entire news cycle. People who research disinformation, like Kate Starbird, know this all too well.

KATE STARBIRD: My advisor, Leysia Palen, at the University of Washington, was watching content about COVID-19 and just following the CDC account, just trying to, like, understand what the CDC account was going to do. And one day, Donald Trump retweeted three or four tweets from the CDC, and it literally broke her data collection.

CORNISH: After the U.S. Capitol riot, Twitter permanently suspended Trump for inciting violence. He's also currently off Facebook and YouTube and many other social media services. This is called deplatforming. Experts say deplatforming can be an important first step in cutting off the oxygen to disinformation and violence, which seemed to be confirmed when a company called Zignal Labs announced a 73% drop in misinformation after Trump had been deplatformed. We asked University of Washington professor Kate Starbird about that study.

STARBIRD: I think we just need to add some context to that. And I think if you look at the original reporting from The Washington Post, some of that context was there. What Zignal Labs did was they took a measure of misinformation that was essentially just looking at keywords related to claims of election fraud. And they looked at one week compared to the week before. And a couple of things happened that were different from one week to the next. And that - the suspension of Donald Trump's account probably made a difference, but it's hard to attribute all of that difference to just that one suspension because 70,000 other accounts were taken out of the system.

CORNISH: People were looking at this, I think, because there's this question about whether deplatforming actually works as a tactic to mitigate disinformation. Do you have a sense that it can have long-term impact?

STARBIRD: I have a sense that it'll have short-term impact for sure. What happens in the long term, I think, is something we don't yet know the answer to. My expectation will be that if those suspensions stay in place and if that vacuum isn't filled by others spreading misinformation and if the platforms can do a better job of not letting those networks build themselves back in, that there will be a long-term benefit to the platforms that did the deplatforming.

CORNISH: I'm asking because we're also seeing those who promoted the violent uprising and who promoted QAnon conspiracies flock to other sites - Gab, Telegram, MeWe. Is the solution to deplatform these people kind of everywhere they go or is it whack-a-mole? I mean, is it too big to get under control using this technique?

STARBIRD: Well, I think we're going to find that there are other platforms that don't mind those kinds of conversations and, in fact, are designed for those conversations. And if you consider sort of our values of freedom of speech and how those things work, as long as they're within the law and those platforms want to support that kind of speech, that'll be a choice they make. And perhaps we will see people that are deplatformed elsewhere find these other platforms as a place where they can move to. But what that also does is it means that the conversations that are happening on these larger, more popular platforms, where in the last few years we've seen recruiting into these conversations, that recruiting won't be able to happen because those conversations won't be happening there.

CORNISH: This discussion has lapsed into Internet fights about the First Amendment, censorship versus threats of violence and incitement. Is there another way to frame this debate?

STARBIRD: That's a really good question. I think it's good to remind ourself - the First Amendment allows us to say whatever we want, but it doesn't mean that a private company has to let us have a microphone that can speak to millions of people, right? They talk about freedom of speech, but not freedom of reach, right? And certainly, we've seen influencers, we call them - we don't have a better word for it - but influencers who have gained outside voice by gaming these systems. And just because they figured out how to game the systems doesn't mean they deserve to keep this outsized voice.

CORNISH: If this is a turning point, what are you going to be listening for that will give you the sense that it's a meaningful turning point?

STARBIRD: This is actually a really hard question because the research that we've been doing historically has been focused on publicly available data. And what would happen, if this is a turning point, is our research methods aren't going to be as useful anymore because the content is going to go into other places. And so for me, it's actually to see, you know, in our research community, are the folks that are studying these sort of longtail platforms that are, you know, edgier, the alt-tech platforms, are they the ones that are busiest right now? And when that happens, we can see that a turning point happened. And what that means for society, I don't think we know yet. You know, we're still going to have - struggle with some of these technology-based toxicities, but they're going to shift where they're at.

CORNISH: Well, Kate Starbird, thank you so much for getting into the numbers with us. Thank you.

STARBIRD: Yeah. Thanks again for having me on.

(SOUNDBITE OF ALT-J'S "3WW") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.