Can We Develop Herd Immunity to Internet Propaganda?

Internet propaganda is becoming an industrialized commodity, warns Phil Howard, the director of the Oxford Internet Institute and author of many books on disinformation. In an interview, he calls for greater transparency and regulation of the industry.

DER SPIEGEL: The online forum Parler was instrumental as a channel for communication in the run-up to the storming of the Capitol Building in Washington, D.C. Amazon has since moved to turn off the service from its cloud hosting services. Does this mean that the problem has been solved?

Howard: No, it would be nice to have a quick technical fix like that. But it’s more complicated than that.

DER SPIEGEL: But could the riot inside the U.S. Capitol have happened without social media?

Howard: Social media certainly helped the organizers, both in the long term and the short term. The sitting president Donald Trump for years now has been cultivating a community of people who love conspiracies and look for extremist, sensational stories. Social media makes it easy to find and target this very specific audience and leverage them. So, after laying the groundwork for a long time, he was able to suddenly ramp up his messaging and use a specific trigger when he needed it, which was his messages that mobilized his supporters to march on the Capitol. This kind of seamless communication with supporters would be much, much harder to establish with professional media as gatekeepers in between a president and his supporters.

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