Opinion

The potential for Google and Facebook to manipulate millions of voters poses a bigger threat than fake news

To the editor: Matthew Baum and David Lazer say we can control fake news by holding Facebook, Google and other platforms to account. In fact, fake news stories are an unimportant source of influence. They’re competitive (like billboards), somewhat silly and have existed as long as news has and most certainly always will. (“Google and Facebook aren't fighting fake news with the right weapons,” Opinion, May 8)

More important, compared with new sources of influence like the Search Engine Manipulate Effect, or SEME, which my research team and I have been studying since 2013, fake news is a trivially small source of influence. It mainly confirms beliefs people already have, whereas SEME and other genuinely new sources of online influence are affecting billions of people.

Google has complete control over the search suggestions and search results it shows us, affecting our purchases, opinions and votes on an unprecedented scale. Through targeted messaging, Facebook has the power to shift nearly a million votes on election day with no one aware of the company’s meddling. It’s these new and largely invisible manipulations that need our attention, not fake news.

Robert Epstein, Vista

The writer is a senior research psychologist at the American Institute for Behavioral Research and Technology.

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To the editor: Trying to cut back on the influence of fake news won’t work, as too much junk is flowing to stem the tide.

A more enduring solution is to educate the public, beginning in elementary school, how and why to differentiate the real from the fake. This requires reading the better newspapers and magazines, perusing a book now and then, listening carefully and critically to the talking heads, and being aware of how preconceptions and biases color what we choose to believe and to act upon.

I’m not holding my breath.

Hal Rothberg, Calabasas

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