It’s despair-making that misinformation about Covid and other topics takes root so easily and demands constant monitoring and refutation. Misinformation—false and fake stories—has always been with us, but it didn’t really begin to flood our political debates until the 2016 presidential campaign, as Donald Trump used it on social media and TV appearances as his prime political strategy. Trump’s exile from Facebook and Twitter has tempered but not tamed the production and consumption of misinformation as his inheritors have taken up some of his slack to subvert and confuse.
The new White House strategy of directing Facebook to put a crimp on misinformers might prompt a few spectacular headlines. It might persuade Facebook to throttle Covid misinformation. It might earn a few attaboys from public health types. But so far, the effort seems to be backfiring, especially among conservatives and social media users who have criticized the government for censoring Covid- and vaccine-related information it opposes.
There’s no precedent in the Internet era of the U.S. government forcibly shoving back into the bottle an idea that has escaped, so Psaki and the White House would be wise to recall their campaign and rely more on what several recent academic studies have taught us about battling misinformation. Evidence exists that suggests we can manage misinformation without resorting to direct censorship by encouraging social media users to be more mindful of accuracy when posting.