In a meeting with a group of journalists in New York City last week, Facebook laid out its strategy for controlling fake news on its platform. The company plans to let users vote news stories up or down based on their credibility, on the assumption that the ones with fewer votes would show up in feeds less often. But Facebook will not delete even the most obviously fake or already-debunked news stories.
This may sound like Facebook is just taking the easy way out of a difficult problem–relying on users to sift through the BS. But there’s more to it than that, I’d argue. What makes fake news so wildly successful on Facebook has also helped the social network grow to an astounding 2.2 billion users.
We woke up to the reality that Facebook had been weaponized as a propaganda platform shortly after the election of Donald Trump in November 2016. Bogus news stories had been shared far more than real ones, research showed, especially those relating to the presidential candidates and incendiary social issues like Black Lives Matter. The election came at a time when Americans had changed the way they got their news, with one study showing that two-thirds of Americans now get their news from social media platforms that don’t employ editors or fact-checkers.
“Facebook stumbled into the news business without systems, editorial frameworks and editorial guidelines, and now it’s trying to course-correct,” said Claire Wardle, research director at the Tow Center for Digital Journalism, in a 2016 interview.
Facebook at first denied the possibility that fake news could have influenced the voting decisions of millions of people. Denial gave way to guilt (fake or otherwise), as company executives like Mark Zuckerberg and Sheryl Sandberg embarked on an apology tour to ask for forgiveness.
The company has been saying for months that it’s looking for ways to prevent its platform from being weaponized as a propaganda platform in future elections. Some platforms–like Fox News–do this willingly. But Facebook allowed it to happen with its dogged refusal to impose control on the political content being posted on its platform.
Despite once dubbing itself “your personalized newspaper” Facebook has long insisted that it is a technology platform and not a media organization. Identifying as a media organization, after all, implies taking responsibility for content. Facebook wants to act as a politically unbiased technology platform.
And for good reason. For one thing, Facebook isn’t wired for the nuanced process of deciding which news posts and pages are truthy and which ones aren’t. It’s not a black-and-white question. Some of the most outrageous InfoWars stories, for example, are rooted in a bit of truth. It’s questionable that any organization could make such determinations in a truly unbiased way. Even historically neutral news organizations like The New York Times are arguably being pulled away from the center in the current hyper-partisan and truth-averse environment. How could Facebook, even with unlimited human resources, act as an arbiter of truth and fair reporting?
It can’t and won’t. Not without becoming something that isn’t Facebook anymore. A leopard cannot change its spots.
The main reason is that Facebook will always be about more content, more users, and more sharing. Facebook has always been about the connecting and networking of people at massive scale. This connection is expressed and reinforced by the sharing of content—any and all content. (Mark Zuckerberg said at a developer conference last year that even the changing of a new baby’s diaper was worth sharing on Facebook.) When users share a piece of content, they are hoping for the dopamine hit received when another user likes or shares the content. (There is no “dislike” button, which might discourage the user from future sharing.) And each share is a new impression–an ad impression that feeds Facebook’s underlying advertising engine.
So banning content and users from the platform–while it does happen for a few well-defined reasons–has always run counter to Facebook’s corporate instincts.
That’s why hoaxes and fake news have always found fertile ground on Facebook. In 2005, just a year after Facebook’s launch, a story was widely circulated (and believed) about a new bill called the “Americans With No Abilities Act.” News items saying Facebook itself is about to charge a monthly fee began showing up in 2010 and have persisted. The 9/11 tragedy, Hurricane Katrina, and vaccination studies have been the subjects of numerous false news accounts spread on Facebook. Why do they spread so well? Because they’re juicy and people want to believe them.
Such stuff will always be welcome on Facebook–not because of the First Amendment but due to the massive resource drain and catastrophic loss of content that getting rid of it would entail. Facebook will never eradicate fake news from its platform, and Facebook will be used as a weaponized propaganda platform as long as its users keep clicking. Mark Zuckerberg, I’m sure, never saw in 2004 that his site might become such an effective platform for propagandists, but here we are.
Is it a fatal flaw that will lead to Facebook’s downfall? No. Facebook will keep growing, and it will continue providing a platform that hurts rather than helps the democratic process. It will continue to perpetuate a political environment where people gravitate toward news stories that fit their existing beliefs and avoid even seeing those that challenge them. “Fake news” no longer means news not rooted in fact but rather “news I don’t agree with.”
Breathing the stale air inside their filter bubbles, Americans’ political character is changing. Because it appears that my opponent’s views are fed by fake news (and to him that mine are, too), our mutual disrespect and intolerance grows. We further lose sight of a common ground where issues can be debated using a mutually-agreed-upon factual currency, which the democratic process requires. When that currency is devalued, or doesn’t exist at all, there’s just nothing to trade on–nothing to talk about.
“The tense silence (or shouting) that ensues has been lingering in Washington D.C. for a long time. These days, for example, when a Congressional committee holds a bill markup session, members of committee’s majority party participate while minority party members aren’t even invited to the table. This dynamic is the norm, and occurs in a thousand different ways in DC.
Ironically, Facebook, which professes to “unite,” has provided the forum for the same kind of tribalism and lack of civil discussion out here in the real world. Facebook is part of the problem, not the solution, and things might not change for the better until we pivot to new ways of connecting politically.
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