Undoubtedly you’ve seen the controversy surrounding Facebook and the election. How much did the circulation of fake news and other false, inflammatory content contribute to the election of Donald Trump? In some areas the margins were very thin — Michigan in fact remains too close to call.
While many critics have charged that unchecked false news did benefit Trump, especially late in the campaign, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg has dismissed the notion:
Of all the content on Facebook, more than 99% of what people see is authentic. Only a very small amount is fake news and hoaxes. The hoaxes that do exist are not limited to one partisan view, or even to politics. Overall, this makes it extremely unlikely hoaxes changed the outcome of this election in one direction or the other.
However Trump himself credits social media for being instrumental in his win and giving him lots of free exposure. He’s probably referring to Twitter in particular but Facebook also figured significantly in promoting memes that were favorable to Trump. Many of the most shared stories on Facebook are/were fake. And they helped amplify anti-Clinton themes that Trump was promoting. To be sure there was lots of anti-Trump sharing and activity on Facebook as well.
Despite Zuckerberg’s position, many Facebook employees were alarmed by some of the allegations against the company and have formed a “secret” internal task force to consider and address how fake news may have impacted the election outcome.
Earlier this week both Google and Facebook took action to try and cut off advertising revenue to publishers and sites that generate or promote fake news. And to the extent that fake news was a strategy to confuse or influence the electorate it’s less likely to continue (for the present at least) in the wake of the election.
Ultimately the problem of malicious or fake news stories circulating on social media is one that requires human editorial intervention and cannot be solved by machine learning alone. But the bigger issue is the way that social media have helped “flatten” and create false equivalence among sources. Google has equally contributed to this over the past two decades.
There’s a way in which news aggregators and social media give credibility to sources and stories that should have none and diminish the credibility of traditional news sources, which deserve more. Headlines now matter more than facts and substance.
Zuckerberg and many of his peers often promote their companies and technologies as a force for good in the world. Indeed there’s a kind of utopian view of the role of technology in some cases. Technology has improved our lives in many respects; however there’s always a dark side or unintended consequences. It’s always a mixed blessing, especially when it operates independently of human oversight or control. This is such as situation.
Facebook has helped people organize and register voters. But it equally allowed damaging, false information to flow unchecked to millions of people during a critical election that will have repercussions for a generation or more. Social media have connected us but also isolated us, by creating insular echo chambers where any information that contradicts our preferred positions and world view is screened out. Fringe beliefs, lies and fraudulent conspiracies can be amplified and reach millions without any reality checking.
Facebook is the top news source for Millennials and a primary news source for almost half the US adult population. Lies or outright propaganda on social media are corrosive of public discourse and democracy itself.
This election has surely revealed (or more clearly exposed) the dark side of social media and online “news.” It’s not entirely clear to me how to address the problem — but we must.