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Analysis —Senate Intelligence Hearing On Fake News, Free Speech And Russia

Recently, three major social media tech companies, Facebook, Google, and Twitter, have found themselves entangled in political controversy. Democratic senators argued that these companies allowed the Russian government to influence the 2016 election through advertisements on social networks. On the other hand, the Republicans stated that these companies hindered their campaign by banning Marsha Blackburn’s advertisement on Twitter. Due to this political entanglement, the Senate Intelligence Hearing brought Colin Stretch, Legal Counsel of Facebook, Richard Salgado, Law Enforcement and Information Security Director of Google and General Counsel Kent Walker, and Sean Edgett, Twitter’s acting general counsel to Capitol Hill.

During the hearing, the tech companies were asked about their screening out process. While Colin Stretch of Facebook defended himself that they use algorithms to filter out hate speech and stop bots, Senator Mark Warner challenged his argument – how can they be sure these algorithms are not part of the problem?

In order to understand how the algorithms work, we first need to understand basic network theory. Social media is an effective tool to surround ourselves with people similar to ourselves. It is within these homogenous groups that information cascades occur. An information cascade is a situation in which later people’s decisions are influenced by earlier people’s decisions. The structure of social networks creates information cascades and echo chambers. This is a problem because as people only see opinions that they agree with, they are not exposed to new ideas and end up trapped in an echo chamber. These echo chambers show only one set of opinions and block out the rest. Thus, these algorithms keep people in one homogenous group and make it more likely for them to form biased opinions. If this is the case, these tech companies should come up with a different solution, other than algorithms, to this problem of fake news and false advertisements.


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