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Facebook can never stop fake news, and still be Facebook

The company told reporters last week it would let users vote on the credibility of news stories, but would not delete even the most obviously false ones.

Facebook can never stop fake news, and still be Facebook
[Photo: Tim Bennett/Unsplash]

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.

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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. Facebook is by its nature a fertile ground for fake news, as I’ll explain. And a leopard can’t change its spots.

We woke up to the reality that Facebook had been weaponized by propagandists shortly after the election of Donald Trump in November 2016. Content houses and trolls pumped out fake news stories carefully written to incite voters. Research showed, in fact, that the bogus stories were shared far more than real ones–especially ones about the presidential candidates and incendiary social issues like Black Lives Matter. And the 2016 election came at a time when Americans’ news consumption habits had changed; two thirds of us now get our news from social media platforms that don’t employ editors or fact-checkers.

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 would, after all, imply taking responsibility for content. Instead, Facebook wants to act as a politically unbiased technology platform.

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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. “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.

Curating away fake news without bias is a very hard problem. 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.

Restricting content, and the proliferation of content, runs counter to every Facebook corporate instinct. Facebook has always and will always be about more content, more users, and more sharing. (Mark Zuckerberg said at a developer conference last year that even the changing of a new baby’s diaper was worth sharing on Facebook.) Each share is a new impression–an ad impression that feeds Facebook’s underlying advertising engine.

Hoaxes and fake news have always been welcome 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 people want to believe them.

Facebook may talk about freedom of expression, but the real reason bogus news remains on its platform is that really policing it is a door the company can’t afford to open. Sifting through the disinformation would be a massive resource drain, and would ultimately mean a catastrophic loss of user content. It’ll never happen, 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 be hijacked for such a purpose, but here we are.

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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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