Can Sacrificing Privacy Stomp Out Disinformation Online?


One way to ward off bad actors could be more information sharing between social-media platforms, researchers, and governments.

It’s one thing to note that tech companies seem to be immune to the bad press that comes from data breaches and intentionally misleading content propagating on their platforms. It’s an altogether scarier prospect that those platforms and disinformation actors might sometimes be working toward similar goals.

According to Dipayan Piku Ghosh, a digital-privacy expert at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government,“the commercial interests of internet platforms like Facebook and those of disinformation operators are at some points aligned.”

Ghosh specified that keeping users engaged for as long as possible is a core goal for both internet companies and entities spreading false information. “For the internet platform, it allows them to create more ad space and collect more data,” he said on Thursday at the Aspen Ideas Festival, which is co-hosted by the Aspen Institute and The Atlantic. “For disinformation operators, it allows them to try to persuade the individual. And that alignment is what we need to really try to solve.”

Renée DiResta, who works as Data for Democracy’s head of policy, offered one possible solution—but it’s a bitter remedy for those who would wish to hold their data close: “Really, the solution ... is better information sharing,” she said on Thursday.

DiResta’s vision of online truth enforcement consists of a “triangle” of independent and academic researchers, researchers at big tech companies, and the government, all exchanging what they know and working in concert to stomp out disinformation. For some, that’s a chilling proposition—after all, it was data sharing between academics and Facebook that allowed Cambridge Analytica to create 30 million psychographic voter profiles without users’ consent. But without data and analysis flowing between each point of the triangle, DiResta argued, there’s no hope of triumphing over nefarious actors in a disinformation arms race.

Ultimately, DiResta said, “I don’t think that there’s any way to do it other than to treat it as an information war.”