March 11, 2021 marks the one-year anniversary of the “day everything changed” for many Americans, as fears about rising coronavirus cases prompted widespread disruption to everyday life. This same one-year period saw the rapid spread of online misinformation about everything from elections to infections, as the COVID-19 crisis transformed the digital landscape into a breeding ground of false speculation about masks, election results, vaccines, and more.
Today, the online misinformation crisis has never been more apparent. Over the past year, social media platforms have taken unprecedented action to label, slow, and stop the spread of false information. Despite these efforts, millions of Americans still hold false, and potentially dangerous, views about the efficacy of FDA-approved COVID-19 vaccines and the results of the 2020 presidential election. The failed insurrection on Jan. 6 exemplified the real-world consequences of online misinformation converging with heightened polarization. After the digital disorder of this past year, what can US policymakers and tech companies learn about the current realities and uncertain future of the online misinformation problem?
LESSON #1: THE INTERNET IS EVERYTHING AND EVERYTHING IS THE INTERNET
The COVID-19 pandemic fused Americans’ digital and physical realities unlike ever before. What happens online is now “real life” in a way that it never was, meaning digital misinformation can have unprecedented real-world consequences. All Americans — even those with little online presence — are impacted by what happens online.
This past year, the Internet became an all-encompassing reality for the vast majority of Americans as public health measures saw massive growth in online learning, telework, e-commerce, and social use. The challenges faced by many US communities lacking sufficient online access simply underscore the heightened role the internet will play in post-pandemic life. As what happens online becomes even more central to everyday life offline, the need for users to practice “digital citizenship” in the face of continued online misinformation has never been more important — or more challenging.
LESSON #2: DIGITAL MISINFORMATION OUTBREAKS CAN LOOK SMALL BUT BE BIG
The internet’s sheer expanse has warped policymakers’ sense of scale when considering the online misinformation problem. The rise of the QAnon conspiracy is emblematic of what happens when large digital misinformation problems seem small. Eventually, it becomes too late to take effective action. Before the November election and Jan. 6 insurrection, millions of Americans likely viewed the movement with bewilderment, while tens of millions more had never even heard of it. However, estimates suggest that millions of Americans have been exposed to QAnon-related misinformation on social media platforms.
In addition to a false narrative’s subject matter, proponents, and potential to incite violence, the perceived size of any given online misinformation strain matters for policymakers and social media platforms with limited bandwidth, resources, and incentives to take action. The challenge of distinguishing larger misinformation problems from smaller ones stems from the huge scale of the internet. When it comes to future online misinformation strains, policymakers and platforms alike should not confuse a false narrative’s irrationality or seemingly small size for irrelevance.
LESSON #3: WE CAN’T REVERSE THE CONSEQUENCES OF PAST ONLINE MISINFORMATION OUTBREAKS
Americans must now contend with the consequences from past failures to contain digital misinformation. The QAnon conspiracy, for example, enjoyed years of unfettered growth online — drawing in millions of adherents — before social platforms intervened and took concerted action. Despite efforts by platforms to remove QAnon-related content, the strain remains resilient, as users flock to less-regulated social platforms and encrypted messaging apps.
QAnon is not the only example of an online misinformation strain whose consequences stem from inadequate early efforts by platforms and policymakers to understand its danger and take action in response. Previous failures to combat the online anti-vaccine movement likely contributed to considerable public doubt about the safety of the COVID vaccines. Millions of Americans still distrust the 2020 election results. Even after platforms take action against online misinformation strains, the consequences cannot be fully undone, especially when violence has been committed. This lesson from the past year underscores the importance of earlier warnings, evaluations, and prompt responses when dealing with online misinformation.
Looking ahead, these lessons leave us with more questions than answers. What will happen to the QAnon movement, as well as associated criminal and violent acts? We have witnessed that social media companies are capable of dramatic action to combat online misinformation, but will platforms maintain elevated levels of scrutiny? Only time will tell. These lessons do, however, point to one overarching reality. In an increasingly online post-pandemic world, it has never mattered more that policymakers and platforms alike no longer take online misinformation strains, even seemingly small or nascent ones, lightly.
Chris Estep is a communications officer at the Center for a New American Security (CNAS) in Washington.
Megan Lamberth is a research associate for the CNAS Technology and National Security program.