Why does it always take the worst thing that could possibly happen to spark reform?
America just suffered through the most painful and divisive presidential election in years and ended up with a President-Elect who is not supported by the majority of voters. There are many reasons this happened, including a disenfranchised electorate and the lack of jobs for Americas working class, but many have questioned the role that fake news played in the election.
There’s an incredible amount of it out there. Not shaded truths or hyperbole, but outright lies presented as real journalism. They spread like viruses among the population, and the petri dish is often Facebook.
Finally facing fake news
Yes, the most popular social network in the world and its founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg has been hammered for over a month about the impact of fake news on the American psyche and the election.
Zuckerberg initially dismissed the idea that fake news could have had an impact on voters, but later reconsidered (at least somewhat) and eventually embraced the idea that change is necessary. Soon we had a list of seven ways Facebook could combat Fake News. Most of them, like disrupting the economics of fake news and attaching warning labels to the stories, were hints of things to come and, as ideas were pretty thin on details and actions.
Bravo, Facebook. Why did it take so long?
There are now at least for a small but hopefully growing percentage of users warning and reporting tools, labels, and even fact-checking(!) that will be driven in large part by Facebooks new partnership with Poynter Institute, a highly regarded journalism school that teaches old-school reporting and media ethics. The school has its own international fact-checking network and many see them as a journalistic watchdog group, meaning they could be the perfect Facebook partner to separate news fact from fiction. Truth will be tethered like blocks of cement to the grimy feet of fake news, dragging it down in the News Feed, far from the surface and notice of Facebook users.
Bravo, Facebook. Why did it take so long?
I used to think that finding and stopping Fake News was a tough problem. Who could really tell what was fake, how could you label it and what would be the best way to stop people from sharing it? Now I realize I was probably overthinking the problem, and perhaps Zuckerberg and Facebook were, too.
With this realization comes the epiphany: Oh my God, this could have been done ages ago six months, a year, four years. The implication should be clear: Without all those insane fake news stories floating around, especially the ones that inaccurately depicted Hillary Clinton as part of a… you know what? No. I won’t say what, since repeating it even as an example of fake news only helps reinforce the lie. Suffice to say theres a story out there that says Clinton was involved in the worst thing imaginable. She was not. Never has been, and Im sure never will be. Whatever you think of the woman and I know many dislike her shes not some insane criminal.
Who is to blame?
I have previously blamed Facebook users for spreading fake news, and I still think they shoulder much of the blame, but the power of these networks and technology to spread and reinforce what purports to be real news simply because it looks like it, giving it the same weight on the network as actual real news, cannot be minimized.
I was wrong to let Facebook off the hook, just as Zuckerberg was wrong to insist that Facebook played no role in the election. If the majority of Americans are on Facebook, and millions are seeing and sharing fake news on a regular basis, it must have some impact. People believe hoaxes just as they do fake news and have acted on them in the past (people panicked in 1938 when Orson Wells broadcast The War of the Worlds on the radio while failing to repeat that it was just a story). Would people act on the fake news they saw on Facebook?
In fact, we know they did.
One of the stories about Clinton prompted a lunatic drive to a pizzeria with a gun to get to the bottom of it. Yes, the bottom of a fake news story, where I assume you would find the emptiness of space.
If Facebook had paid more attention to the content on its network and not take such a laissez-faire attitude, that story and many other fake news items might have been caught sooner, debunked and been shared less. Instead, it and many others continue to thrive.
Facebooks welcome-but-too-late efforts cant stop that virus: its spread far and wide from the network, as have many other fake news stories. Facebooks role as patient zero for the fake news disease may be ending, but the damage is already done.
So, thanks, Mark Zuckerberg for acknowledging what was broken and taking action to fix it now, after the election. Try not to think too much about the world of uncertainty were entering and Facebooks role in it. Whats done is done, and what you didnt do, you just didnt do.