Big Bad Data

Democracy in Danger / Episode 11

With more than 2.7 billion users worldwide sharing their personal data on Facebook alone, governments and — more recently — lobbyists and partisan operatives are mining our behaviors and interests to serve up attractive narratives, sway public opinion and stoke political divisions to their own ends. How can users wrestle control of all this data back from the social media companies?

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When Phil Howard lived in Budapest, he watched as Hungary’s fledgling democracy was polluted with polarizing stories spread online. It’s a phenomenon now threatening political discourse everywhere, and recent tweaks meant to improve social media policies and algorithms, he says, amount to “a drop in the bucket.” But find out why Howard, a professor of internet studies at Oxford University, thinks we need more social media, not less; and how machine learning and big data might be democratized for good.


About our guest

Phil Howard is a sociologist and professor of internet studies at Oxford University and the Director of the Oxford Internet Institute. He’s the author of nine books — most recently, Lie Machines: How to Save Democracy from Troll Armies, Deceitful Robots, Junk News Operations, and Political Operatives, published this year by Yale University Press. Howard’s research has received support from the European Research Council and the National Science Foundation, and his commentary has appeared in media outlets around the world. Follow him on Twitter @pnhoward.

This episode was posted on Sept. 29, 2020.

What we’re reading

By our guest

In Lie Machines, Howard explores some of the world’s most sophisticated misinformation campaigns, what made them successful, and how they might be shut down.

Last month he argued in The Guardian that the data social media companies collect about users could be used for good if made available to public institutions and researchers.

And for a more scholarly take on what’s at stake, read a research paper that Howard co-wrote about the 2016 U.S. presidential election, in the Journal of Information Technology and Politics.

From around the web

Twitter provided an unwitting platform for spreading bogus speculation about the 2014 crash of Malaysian Airlines Flight 17. Learn more in this report from the Washington Post.

Recently, Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, TikTok and even Pinterest have been taking steps to stop malign actors from sowing political confusion. Time magazine’s Washington correspondent Vera Bergengruen reports on what social media companies are doing to get ready for a chaotic 2020 election.

In 2016, the baseless Pizzagate conspiracy theory bubbled up from the dark web to hurt Hillary Rodham Clinton’s presidential campaign. The following year, Rolling Stone offered this “Anatomy of a Fake News Scandal” and considered its dangerous consequences.


A transcript of this episode is available here

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