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Fighting misinformation online is 'easier than people think': Steve Ballmer

Max Zahn with Andy Serwer
·4 mins read

When Twitter (TWTR) took the unprecedented step last month of labeling false messages posted by President Donald Trump, the move prompted an executive order and renewed debate over whether social media platforms should confront misinformation or refrain from regulating speech.

In a newly released interview, taped on May 28, Los Angeles Clippers Chairman and former Microsoft (MSFT) CEO Steve Ballmer said the spread of misinformation on social media requires additional action, calling on government regulators and tech companies to negotiate a fix and urging a dramatic push for innovative solutions equivalent to the pharmaceutical industry’s focus on coronavirus therapies.

“If there can be a negotiation between the industry and the government, I think it's better done that way than through legislation,” says Ballmer, who led Microsoft from 2000 to 2014, overseeing the launch of search engine Bing but departing two years before the company acquired job posting and social media platform LinkedIn.

Misinformation should “be worked through by the regulators with the industry, because then you can take on nuance, and the industry can explain what's possible and the government can push the industry to innovate,” Ballmer says.

On May 26, Twitter labeled two inaccurate tweets from Trump about mail-in ballots as “potentially misleading,” and days later warned users that an incendiary tweet from Trump about protests in Minneapolis had “glorified violence.” Meanwhile, Facebook (FB) decided to forego flagging identical messages posted by Trump on its platform, drawing public criticism from hundreds of employees.

After the initial move by Twitter, Trump signed an executive order that could potentially weaken protections afforded to social media platforms under Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, which provides legal immunity with respect to content posted by users. An advocacy group for major tech companies, the Center for Democracy and Technology, brought a lawsuit against the Trump administration calling the order an infringement on free speech.

Despite the controversy, Ballmer said the problem of misinformation poses less of a challenge to regulators and industry than some observers believe.

“I think it's easier than people think,” he says.

Lessons from the 2016 election

Concerns about misinformation on social media reached a fever pitch after the 2016 presidential election, the outcome of which some have attributed to a Russian disinformation campaign. The following year, Ballmer founded USAFacts, a nonprofit organization that curates and distributes publicly available government data.

Ballmer made the remarks in an episode of Yahoo Finance’s “Influencers with Andy Serwer,” a weekly interview series with leaders in business, politics, and entertainment.

Scrutiny of big tech companies in Washington, D.C., escalated last year, when the U.S. House Judiciary Committee held the first in a series of antitrust hearings about whether and how to address the concentration of market power in big tech.

Steve Ballmer, the owner of the Los Angeles Clippers and former Microsoft CEO, appears on "Influencers with Andy Serwer."
Steve Ballmer, the owner of the Los Angeles Clippers and former Microsoft CEO, appears on "Influencers with Andy Serwer."

Several Democratic presidential candidates, most prominently Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren, called last year for the breakup of tech giants. The Federal Trade Commission and the Justice Department have divided up oversight of Amazon (AMZN), Google (GOOG, GOOGL), Apple (AAPL), and Facebook.

The tech industry should prioritize innovative solutions to misinformation with a focused approach similar to that of pharmaceutical companies in response to the coronavirus, says Ballmer.

“There is innovation right now in the pharma industry that is all targeted clearly on corona[virus],” he says. “There is a clear priority that helps focus innovation — and if there were clear priorities in terms of, of privacy and appropriate expression, I think the social media companies will innovate in a way that will really improve the situation quickly.”

“Right now, the innovation is not being applied in as perfect a way as it could if there was a more clear target,” he says.

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