Throughout this year’s US presidential campaign, journalists have focused, correctly, on the power of Facebook to shape, distort and ultimately control the news and information that inform and educate voters. They have written dozens of stories about the proliferating number of anonymous, low-rent websites that publish bombastic and clearly inaccurate stories designed to spread throughout Facebook’s platform as quickly as possible. Because so many of those stories were so heavily slanted toward the Republican nominee, some of those very same journalists are now beginning to blame Facebook, rather than actual voters, for yesterday’s earth-shaking election of Donald Trump.
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“Americans never honestly saw [Trump] because Facebook prioritises engagement over truth,” wrote Atlantic editor James Hamblin. The site allowed “more than 200 million active North American users to dwell in a fever swamp of misinformation and ridiculous falsehood,” said Deadspin editor Alex Pareene. “For all [of Facebook’s] wonders … it’s also become a single point of failure for civic information,” argued Nieman Lab’s Joshua Benton.
The most damning indictment came from New York magazine’s Max Read, in an article titled “Donald Trump Won Because of Facebook”:
It can be clarifying to identify the conditions that allowed access to the highest levels of the political system a man so far outside what was, until recently, the political mainstream that not a single former presidential candidate from his own party would endorse him. In this case, the condition was: Facebook. … The most obvious way in which Facebook enabled a Trump victory has been its inability (or refusal) to address the problem of hoax or fake news.
Pointing to false stories like “Russia Asks CIA: Why Did Hillary Clinton Just Buy $137 Million Worth Of Illegal Arms?” and “WikiLeaks: Clintons Purchase $200 Million Maldives Estate,” Read lays out the case that Facebook’s flattening effect — the way it visually renders content to seem more or less the same — made it unusually difficult, though not impossible, for laypeople to distinguish between articles published by a week-old blog founded by a Macedonian teenager and those published by, say, The New York Times. And that, in turn, made it difficult to sort out fiction from fact. “Many of those stories were lies, or ‘parodies’,” he wrote, “but their appearance and placement in a news feed were no different from those of any publisher with a commitment to, you know, not lying.”
Taken together, these and other criticisms from the media industry amount to the argument that, if Facebook had taken stronger measures against fake pro-Trump, anti-Clinton stories — if the company had decided to care about what its users were reading — we would have had a much higher chance of having President-elect Clinton.
Facebook clearly anticipated scrutiny over its role in the election. As Gizmodo’s Michael Nuñez reported earlier this year, its employees voted in early March to ask CEO Mark Zuckerberg the following question in a weekly Q&A session: “What responsibility does Facebook have to help prevent President Trump in 2017?” And, last month, the Wall Street Journal reported that a group of employees had agitated, unsuccessfully, to remove Trump’s Facebook posts about banning Muslims from the United States. But what accounts for Facebook’s flat-footed response to the growing number of fake stories infecting its users feeds?
One reason, of course, is that it’s very nearly impossible to teach an algorithm how to consistently detect inaccurate content. Given the inherent ambiguity of language, spotting fake stories tends to require lots of human intervention. Another way to put this is: Terms like fake — or bullshit, or hoax and so on — don’t always possess stable definitions, even among members of the same political cohorts.
Perhaps the most readily available example of this phenomenon is the controversy surrounding Hillary Clinton’s use of a private email server during her tenure as Secretary of State. Major developments in this story were broken by the New York Times, whose reporters treated it as a major scandal, one deserving of dedicated explainer-timelines not just for the story, but for Clinton’s reaction to the story. To the news startup Vox, however, the entire story, from start to finish, was crap. “The truth … is that the email server scandal is and always was overhyped bullshit,” wrote executive editor Matt Yglesias.
Whether Clinton’s use of a private email server was “overhyped” is, of course, a question of interpretation. And it’s a far cry from claiming that Clinton officials engaged in Satanic rituals. We would call the latter a hoax, or an intentional deception, rather than just crap. But if we’ve already accepted that Facebook erases these distinctions, it’s hard to argue, from the standpoint of the average Facebook user, that establishment media companies — not just fly-by-night blogs in Eastern Europe — have fallen victim to their own brand of falsehoods and misinformation, too.
The most high-profile example of this, at least in the past few years, is Rolling Stone‘s disastrous 2014 investigation of campus rape at the University of Virginia, in which the paper got duped by a fundamentally unreliable source. If you were wondering how American voters elected a man who was caught on tape admitting to sexually preying on women, the Rolling Stone saga is a decent place to start, and not just because its inaccuracy allowed people to spread the pernicious myth that women frequently lie about being raped. That episode also reminds us that websites peddling fake news about Hillary Clinton murdering soldiers in Benghazi do not have, and have never had, exclusive purchase on falsehoods, nor sole domain over the mistrust in media those lies tend to breed.
Indeed, during the 2016 cycle, a different kind of false story rose to prominence, one defined by professional journalists’ certainty that Donald Trump would never, ever become President. For example:
- Slate: “Donald Trump Isn’t Going to Be President”
- Vice: “The Real Reason Why Donald Trump Will Never Be President”
- The Washington Post: “Donald Trump will (almost certainly) never be elected president. Here’s why.”
- Salon: “Donald Trump will not be president: History, polling data and demographics all point to a single result”
- US News & World Report: “Donald Trump Will Never Be President”
And on and on. This certainty pervaded mainstream coverage of Trump’s campaign during its entire run, up until its very end, and it was entirely wrong. Yet when these stories were shared on Facebook, nobody referred to them as hoaxes, or falsehoods, that needed to be identified and removed from circulation. Nobody ever said the spread of stories containing the words “Donald Trump will never be President” amounted to a crisis that Facebook needed to address immediately. And yet if you were to consider the kinds of stories that would discourage Clinton supporters from turning out at the polls — if you were to worry about stories that would deliver Trump the presidency — it’s hard to think of a more effective template than “Donald Trump will never be President”. After all, if a Clinton supporter saw those words in an article published by an outlet they trusted, why would they even bother to vote?
This is not to suggest that Facebook is blameless. When it comes to the distribution of news, the company’s off-hands approach has allowed outright lies to spread among its users, as evidenced by the rise of hoax stories in the News Feed’s trending topics section. It has courted hundreds of media companies to such a point that most of them are entirely beholden to Facebook’s hose of traffic. And, as Pareene pointed out yesterday, the company’s CEO, Mark Zuckerberg, has provided more cover for Facebook board member and Donald Trump delegate Peter Thiel than any other person in the tech industry, having refused to distance himself, or the company, from Thiel’s complicity in the Republican nominee’s vicious campaign.
Nearly all of these decisions stem from Facebook’s long-standing and baffling refusal to call itself a media company. But that refusal has always been beside the point. Of course Facebook is a media company. It decides what kind of stories its users see, and sets strict guidelines for third-party companies who use its platform for distribution.
The spread of fake news on Facebook represents a real threat to a functioning political system. But if journalists are worried about establishing a baseline of accuracy on Facebook’s platform, they should start with the story the company tells about itself. No lie or falsehood or hoax is more consequential than Facebook’s belief that it is not a media company, and thus can shirk the responsibilities of one — beginning with a basic fidelity to the truth.
It’s the job of journalists to expose that lie. Given the media industry’s own history of errors and obfuscation, it will be difficult to write and publish this story in a manner that will change people’s minds. But doing so would set the necessary conditions to write the stories that the electorate says it wants to read. Even better, telling the true story of Facebook brings us closer to being able to publish these other, more important stories — those that illustrate voters’ deepest desires and fears — without having to rely on Facebook in the first place.