The Wall Street Journal’s Facebook Files series resumed last week, revealing that the platform took action against an online campaign to set up a new right-wing “Patriot Party” after the Jan. 6 insurrection. Earlier this month news outlets reported that a number of former employees excoriated the company’s content moderation practices in their departure emails. And on Oct. 25, a dozen news outlets released new stories based on yet more leaked Facebook documents. In congressional hearings on the initial Facebook leak, Sen. Richard Blumenthal succinctly captured the tone of the public sentiment, saying that “Facebook and Big Tech are facing a Big Tobacco moment.”
Salacious as these revelations may be, they raise a deeper question: How can it be that society depends on whistleblowers revealing internal studies that could not pass peer review for insight into the societal harms exacerbated by multibillion-dollar companies that hundreds of millions of Americans (and billions of people around the world) use for hours every week?
It’s not like the stakes are low. As America’s deeply challenged vaccination effort so strikingly suggests, misleading facts, conspiracy theories and political disinformation circulating online could pose a clear and present danger to democratic society. But beyond observing the coincidence of a poor public health response and widespread misinformation, there is very little high-reliability research on the impact of online influence campaigns and disinformation.