Fake news 'to get worse' by 2020 election unless social media firms act, DNC tech chief says

Key Points
  • In a CNBC interview at the Web Summit in Portugal, the DNC's Chief Technology Officer Raffi Krikorian said social media companies need to take more steps to stop fake news.
  • Krikorian said misinformation campaigns are growing in size and sophistication.
  • From a technology perspective, Tuesday's elections "went great," Krikorian said.
Congress should push online platforms to tackle election meddling: Raffi Krikorian

The number of "fake news" accounts was significantly higher in this year's midterm elections than in the 2016 presidential election and it's only set to grow by 2020, according to the Democratic National Committee's (DNC) top software engineer.

In an interview with CNBC at the Web Summit tech conference in Lisbon, Portugal on Thursday, DNC Chief Technology Officer Raffi Krikorian said his team was in "constant communication" with social media companies during Tuesday's elections to report fake accounts. He said misinformation campaigns are growing in size and sophistication. The DNC is the formal governing body for the U.S. Democratic Party.

"Our concern is honestly it's just going to get worse over time unless the platform companies figure out how to control it on their side," Krikorian told CNBC's Karen Tso.

Fake news is a term used to describe the modern phenomenon of deliberate falsehoods or fiction masked as news circulating on the internet.

Marathon not a sprint

Krikorian, a computer scientist who previously held senior positions at Uber and Twitter, acknowledged social media companies like Facebook are taking steps to increase transparency. But he said their business models, driven by revenue and engagement, do not incentivize solutions for fighting fake news, and the problem wouldn't fix itself by the next U.S. presidential election. 

"I think we're going to need a large push from organizations like ours, from potentially the federal government, to say you actually do need to go work on this problem before '20," he said.

The first step, Krikorian said, is recognizing that misinformation is a long-term problem. He said companies operate in election cycles, only beefing up security measures in the final months before voting.

"Everyone does a sprint toward election day and then after election day we don't hear about it anymore," he said.

Krikorian said social media companies should work to develop algorithms that can detect fake accounts. But until those algorithms are functional, he said, companies should hire more people to monitor and audit content online. He added computer scientists and engineers need to engage with Congress to introduce regulation around fake news.

Building up the DNC

In July 2016, the DNC revealed its computer network was hacked by Russian groups, leading to the release of thousands of emails. Krikorian said his team of 35 people is working to bring "engineering rigor" to the DNC and to build strong systems that will last beyond the next election.

"Really good technology should fade into the background, it should not be in the forefront," he said.

Krikorian said, from a technology perspective, Tuesday's midterm elections "went great" for the DNC. In addition to monitoring security threats, Krikorian said he is focused on making the 2020 election a race for the best candidate, not the best technology.

"We're making sure the platforms that the entire party works on works reliably and effectively so they can do their jobs," he said.

Election meddling can’t be ignored between elections, says DNC CTO