Facebook is Under Fire for Spreading Fake News

Stan Ward

Stan Ward

November 21, 2016

Facebook, the company that single-handedly distributes and filters information to over a billion people every day, is under fire for allegedly spreading fake news. Some even blame Facebook’s enabling of fiction and outright falsehoods for the outcome in the recently-concluded US Presidential election, which Donald Trump won.

Whether or not this is true, one thing is for sure. Trump leveraged social media platforms to his advantage better than Hillary Clinton, who had her own friendly news outlets, the mainstream media (MSM), in her corner spewing pro-Clinton puff-pieces and anti-Trump venom at a rate hitherto unseen in political history. Even so, five million fewer people voted for her than had voted for Obama, many of them younger voters who flocked to Facebook as they were ignored by the MSM.

For many, the fact that venerable news organizations like the New York Times would abandon sound journalistic principles to admittedly and unabashedly slant their reporting toward Clinton, and against Trump, may have fomented the move, making Facebook the medium of choice for information, fabricated though it may have been. Without accepting responsibility for the election outcome, Facebook CEO, Mark Zuckerberg, said it will make a concerted effort to weed out fake news in the future. It will be a Herculean task given the popularity of the platform and the growing number of people abandoning the mainstream media, especially the print media, as their go-to source of information.

Facebook will start this complex campaign by enhancing its ability to detect false news while also making it easier for people to report bogus stories. This is a good first step. Other measures might include third-party verification of stories and enlisting fact-checking organizations. Additionally, Facebook can label stories that the third-parties have identified as fake and develop protocols that make it easier to report fictitious facts. Facebook, importantly, has to disrupt the economic source that allows spurious stories to flourish, by putting advertisers on alert that its ban on deceptive and misleading content also applies to fake news. While implementing standards that preclude misleading articles, Zuckerberg must straddle a fence, however.

Facebook, in order to be relevant, must remain a platform for expressing unvarnished opinions without fear of censorship. In a recent post addressing the thorny issue, Zuckerberg said,

“We need to be careful not to discourage sharing of opinions or mistakenly restricting accurate content. We do not want to be arbiters of truth ourselves, but instead rely on our community and trusted third parties.”

In saying this, he seems to be downplaying the reality that, like it or not, Facebook is more of a media company than it would like to admit. It is, therefore, responsible for policing its content for falsehoods, misinformation or hate speech as is alleged in a recent article in The Intercept. The article acknowledges, rightly, that the likes of Facebook have never been seen before. No other company remotely resembles it or enjoys its popularity. It takes Facebook to task for burying its head in the sand by shirking its responsibility to be accountable for what appears on its pages – for falling back on the premise that it is not a real media company. Zuckerberg argues,

“The world needs news companies, but also technology platforms, like what we do, and we take our role in this very seriously.”

Not seriously enough according to The Intercept.

While Facebook deserves some criticism for being late to recognize its missteps, giving it the lion’s share of the blame for what the author (and others) feels is an undesirable election outcome, is lame and misguided. Hillary Clinton and her campaign staff made many miscues, such as in allocating personnel resources to battleground states, and misreading (like many) the polls. The fact that she failed to cobble together the coalition of voters who propelled Obama into office in 2008, and who supported him again in 2012, is not Facebook’s fault. Relying on Obama’s personal appeal to energize the base didn’t work, either. His personal appeal didn’t keep the Democrats from taking beatings in down-ballot races throughout his presidency. His personal appeal didn’t vibe with his policy appeal.

This has been evident from the outcome in all elections (Congressional and local) since 2010. Obama and the Democrats must grudgingly admit that the US, by electing Republican majorities in both the House and Senate and in most statehouses and state legislatures around the country, has rejected the left-leaning policies proffered over the previous eight years. That is the Democrats and Obama’s legacy and has nothing to do with Facebook’s shortcomings.

At the same time, the mainstream media, in pandering to the liberal elites on either coast, were deaf and blind to the clamor for change voiced by not only Trump but also by Clinton’s opponent in the primaries, Bernie Sanders. In behaving this way, the MSM paved the way for Facebook to become a viable platform for people to vent their frustration with establishment politics. Moreover, many people were susceptible to information favourable to their way of thinking even if it was specious. After all, the out-of-touch establishment media was not reporting how a big swathe of the electorate felt.

The writer of the article is correct in one regard. As the MSM continues on the road to irrelevance and the print media to extinction, Facebook and online companies seeking to emulate it will grow in popularity in the US and around the world. They will occupy the space surrendered by the arrogant, tone-deaf MSM, which is disconnected from the average Facebook user. This does not in any way, shape or form let Facebook off the hook. It means that as it continues to grow, it must ensure so far as possible that it is not a vehicle for false information or repulsive rhetoric.

Editor’s note: Stan’s opinions are very much his own. They should not be regarded as representing the views of other staff members.

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