Facebook should create a “circuit breaker” to help prevent dangerous disinformation and incitements to violence from ever reaching a mass audience. By the time millions of people have shared false information, it’s already too late. A simple circuit breaker could have stopped disinformation about the pandemic and about the 2020 elections from reaching millions of people.

Disinformation and incitements to violence are nothing new. What is new is online platforms that spread controversial content at lightning speed, before anyone’s had a chance to check it for dangerous disinformation or incitement to hatred and violence.

That’s how the verifiably false Plandemic video spread to more than 8 million people in one week before social media companies took it down.

We deserve social media platforms free from attacks on our elections, free from pandemic misinformation, and free from threats to our physical safety.

Circuit breakers are used in the stock exchange when there’s a dramatic drop, to pause trading and allow traders to assimilate new information and make better-informed choices. Social media circuit breaking would work the same way, pausing the most high volume posts for fact-checking before they reach millions of people.

Facebook can and should build and flip the switch! As Facebook users, we demand Facebook enact a circuit breaker policy to stem the flow of hate and lies!


Why we need a circuit breaker

Disinformation and incitements to violence are nothing new. What is new is online platforms that spread controversial content at lightning speed, before anyone’s had a chance to check it for dangerous disinformation or incitement to hatred and violence.

In this new reality, social media companies’ failure to slow down superspreading content has the potential to destabilize our political system, polarize our population, undermine public health, and threaten our physical safety.

A circuit breaker is an electrical switch that automatically gets flipped when excess electrical current is threatening damage to an electrical circuit. Stock markets have borrowed the circuit breaker concept to halt trading when there’s a dramatic drop in the value of the stock market.

Social media companies like Facebook could and should implement a circuit breaker to pause viral content while it’s checked for dangerous disinformation and incitements of hatred and violence.

While a circuit breaker on its own won’t eliminate the torrent of lies and hate that Facebook has allowed to inundate its platform, it is a crucial first step.

Slowing down superspreader content goes beyond the free speech vs. censorship dichotomy

The speed with which disinformation can spread on social media platforms outstrips conventional conversations about unfettered free speech vs. censorship. Government censorship of speech is always a problem and always a threat to democracy, but in the 21st century it is no longer the only threat we face.

Powerful and ubiquitous social media companies, chief among them Facebook, have the power to undermine human rights and democratic structures by placing their engagement metrics and advertising profits above the public interest.

Circuit breakers restore free speech to the real meaning of the expression, which never included the right to viral or algorithmic amplification. They would allow superspreader social media posts to remain posted on an individual’s profile but would prevent them from being algorithmically amplified until they are fact checked by a human being.

Facebook’s algorithmic amplification formulas prioritize controversy, sensationalism and anger and feed on personal vulnerabilities to propel virulent content. None of us want Mark Zuckerberg to decide what is true, what is false, what is hateful and what is not. But the time for analysis is not after the social media platform’s tools have delivered the content to millions of people. By then, it is too late.

How a circuit breaker would work

Stock exchanges use circuit breakers to pause trading during periods of high volatility. During this pause, traders are able to assimilate new information that will help them make informed choices when the stock exchange reopens. Social media circuit breaking would work the same way.

The circuit breaker would automatically be flipped when a superspreading post is heading to tens of thousands of people’s newsfeeds at an unsafe speed. Some researchers have suggested a trigger for posts with 100,000 Facebook interactions in 12 hours, which would mean roughly the top 0.01 percent of Facebook posts from public pages within the period. (See Social media platforms need to flatten the curve of dangerous misinformation by Ellen Goodman and Karen Kornbluh.)

Others have suggested that Facebook implement a circuit breaker that would be flipped under any of the following circumstances:

  • A post reaches a certain number of direct interactions and its reach is growing exponentially (similar to what’s described above)
  • A certain number of reports or complaints have been made about a post.
  • A certain number of pages with large audiences are pushing the post in a coordinated way.
  • A post is being amplified by pages that have previously been penalized by Facebook for spreading misinformation.

Only Facebook has real-time data about what the right trigger point would be to prevent lies and hate from reaching a mass audience. (See Fighting Coronavirus Misinformation and Disinformation by the Center for American Progress.)

Once the circuit breaker is triggered, the post would be “paused” until it’s reviewed by a human being. It would remain on the user’s profile page but not be eligible for amplification. The Working Group on Infodemics Policy Framework recommends that the circuit breaker would temporarily prevent the content from algorithmic amplification in newsfeeds, appearing in trending topics, or via other algorithmically aggregated and promoted avenues. Individual posting or message sharing could still occur. (See Working Group on Infodemics Policy Framework, page 80.)

Any post paused by the circuit breaker would be placed at the top of the list for review by Facebook and third-party fact checkers. This means Facebook’s existing fact-checking program would need to be better resourced and purposefully diversified so that content in all languages could be fact checked in a timely way. It should also expand to include a significant number of alternative and independent media outlets. Expanding the make-up of Facebook’s independent fact checkers will ensure that diverse viewpoints are not unfairly restricted.

Correcting the record by alerting Facebook users who’ve been shown verifiably false or misleading information is also crucial, but it is not as effective as preventing those lies and hate from reaching users in the first place. (Learn more from Avaaz.)

As Facebook users, we deserve to have newsfeeds in which factual content is not drowned out by virulent, sensationalistic content that contains provably false information and incitements to hatred and violence.  A circuit breaker is a policy that Facebook could easily enact as a first step toward creating a better environment for its users.