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Illinois professor maps how to limit misinformation on Facebook

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In this March 29, 2018, file photo, the logo for Facebook appears on screens at the Nasdaq MarketSite in New York's Times Square.

URBANA – Lawmakers can’t effectively control misinformation on Facebook. What they can do is limit the reach of the social media giant.

That’s the perspective of University of Illinois journalism professor Nikki Usher. Usher studies journalism, social media, and misinformation.

“The biggest ways that we can get at Facebook that I see as most politically tenable really have nothing to do with speech – but more with thinking about how we break up big tech,” Usher says.

Facebook is back under scrutiny in Congress for allowing misinformation and division to flourish on its products, which include Instagram and Whatsapp.

This time, a former Facebook employee has leaked thousands of pages of documents to back up the claim that the company chooses profits over people. The whistleblower, Frances Haugen, urged Congress this week to act in the interest of public safety to make the main feeds on Facebook and Instagram more transparent and less reactive to sensational content. She was not in favor of breaking up the company into smaller ones, arguing that would push the company into more harmful behavior.

Facebook has responded to Haugen’s claims in an interview with NPR. The company pointed to efforts to tamp down misinformation, like its political advertisement blackout immediately after last year’s presidential election.

Some US Senators have jumped on the momentum from Haugen’s leaks. Kansas Republican Sen. Jerry Moran and Connecticut Democratic Sen. Richard Blumenthal are considering allowing private citizens to sue Facebook for harm the company has caused them.

From Usher’s perspective, these proposals won’t do much.

“We need to remember that people operate in the social contexts that they’ve been operating in, since before there was Facebook,” Usher says. “People who are looking to explain a very complicated world are going to be vulnerable to conspiracy theory.”

Rather than trying to regulate what Facebook shows users, federal lawmakers should focus on strengthening data privacy and antitrust laws, according to Usher.

Data privacy laws would limit Facebook’s profits and ability to target information and ads to users based on their online presence. Antitrust laws would prevent Facebook from buying up competitors and could potentially force Facebook to drop some of the companies it has already acquired.

“Can we control the profit of this company? Can we undermine it from a more infrastructural, financial sense?” Usher asks.

Data privacy laws are among the changes Congress is considering. Antitrust laws were also on the table this summer.

Usher has been studying how non-urban Illinois uses Facebook as a crucial source of information and community glue. She is the director of a project called Platforms, Politics, and Local News in Illinois. The project spans departments at the University of Illinois and draws on data analysis, interviews and focus groups.

Usher says that Facebook fills a thirst for information among many communities that extends beyond the decline of community newspapers. Local newspapers, or their peer radio and TV stations, don’t cover politics or produce hard-hitting investigations in enough depth or locally enough to satisfy that thirst, she says.

For example, Usher found an intense interest in COVID-19 case numbers, down to the zip code. People wanted to use that information to try to avoid those infected with the virus.

“The way that misinformation seeps in is that people are trying to figure out what’s going on, and they’re drawing on all sorts of sources, because there just isn’t anything there for them,” Usher says. “They’re trying to understand a world that feels out of control.”

Usher’s most recent book, News for the Rich, White, and Blue: How Place and Power Distort American Journalism, covers a similar topic. The book focuses on why the media landscape is skewing towards a white, wealthy, liberal audience and what can be done about it.

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Emily Hays

Emily Hays

Emily Hays started at WILL in October 2021 after three-plus years in local newsrooms in Virginia and Connecticut. She has won state awards for her housing coverage at Charlottesville Tomorrow and her education reporting at the New Haven Independent. Emily graduated from Yale University where she majored in History and South Asian Studies.

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