Facebook Under Fire: Fake News in the Age of Social Media

In the aftermath of the recent, logic-defying presidential election, many commentators sought to rationalize one of the most surprising upsets in the history of American politics. Why did the election turn out the way it did? How did the polls get their predictions so wrong? What was the turning point in which Trump’s victory was secured? In the past few weeks, we have seen ample commentary from both sides of the aisle seeking answers to these questions, but both parties seem to agree on one thing: that social media played a disproportionate role in the outcome. Going forward, we too can agree that as their influence grows, websites such as Facebook will have to seriously evaluate the extent to which they would like to be known as a legitimate source of information, as well as the extent to which they regulate posts.

In 2008, Barack Obama capitalized on the budding social platforms. He effectively harnessed them to a much greater extent than did his opponent, John McCain, and they undoubtedly contributed to his ultimate victory. Since then, all politicians have employed platforms such as Facebook, Twitter and Instagram to increase their appeal to a wider audience, as well as to get their policies out through a medium other than broadcasted speeches and press releases. In this past election cycle, statistics showed that 63 percent of voters across age lines claimed to get their information on topics such as governmental policies and the economy from Facebook and Twitter, a percentage 10 percent greater than the one measured after Obama’s second inauguration in 2012. As Pablo Boczkowski put it, “spending time on social media has become so pervasive in people’s daily lives that it’s engulfed their news consumption habits.” This effectively meant that whichever candidate was better at using social media would ultimately propagate their message better. And in this election, that candidate was Donald Trump.

Of course, this also meant that Trump voters were getting most of their news on issues pertaining to national security and the global economy on a website that did not claim to be an effective source of information, but rather a social forum meant to be a platform for the free exchange of ideas, however inaccurate. When Facebook was created, its intent was to connect people across the world through photos, shared interests, and mutual friends. Since then, it has expanded to both a greater sphere of influence, as well as a base for news sources such as The New York Times and The Economist to gain a greater readership base. However, this surge in media publication by genuine sources has been accompanied by the proliferation of entry-level blogs and websites such as the National Review and Breitbart News. Because Facebook is only a podium for these sites rather than a publisher, it has no control over the content of whatever articles are posted; therefore, the sources themselves have the power to self-regulate to whatever degree they choose in terms of how truthful they want to be. This lack of effective accountability allowed for conspiracy theorist blogs and news outlets like The Daily Mail to flourish alongside editorials by Frank Bruni from The New York Times, with no differentiation between the two.

Going forward, we too can agree that as their influence grows, websites such as Facebook will have to seriously evaluate the extent to which they would like to be known as a legitimate source of information, as well as the extent to which they regulate posts.

All of these issues crystallized in the days following the most recent election, when Mark Zuckerberg and his company came under fire from the general public for precipitating the dissemination of fake news stories regarding the presidential candidates, most of which negatively affected Hillary Clinton. Many critics condemned the website for not recognizing its role as a key player in the spread of news sooner, and for not doing enough to curb the outrageous stories posted on its site, the most notable of which came from a group of Macedonian teens who spread news articles with headlines such as “Pope Francis forbids Catholics from voting for Hillary!” and “Bill Clinton’s sex tape just leaked!” When interviewed, the founders of the site confirmed the worst fears of the skeptics of fake news: “Yes, the info on the blogs is bad, false and misleading but the rationale is that ‘if it gets the people to click on it and engage, then use it.’” This quote highlighted the philosophy of many of the sites publicizing fake, “yellow-journalism” style stories; rather than serve as an effective way to provide the public with useful, truthful information leading up to one of the most important moments in our country’s history, these websites viewed news simply as a way of gaining more web traffic.

The reasoning behind this unprecedented influence of false stories is twofold. First, the algorithmic nature of Facebook’s News Feed provides its users with stories likely to “engage” their interests. This means that when you open your page, the articles that appear at the top are strategically placed there to match your previous searches and interests. According to the Nieman Lab, “even if we were presented with a large number of news stories and paid significant attention to them, the likelihood of obtaining information that exposed us to alternative viewpoints and helped us learn something new would be relatively low. This algorithmic logic further insulates people from the influence of news media stories that could potentially alter preexistent political preferences.” So, for many voters who received the bulk of their information on the election from Facebook, the website itself perpetuated their consumption of fake news stories based on the propensity of this demographic’s wish to read them.

The second feature that led to the uncensored proliferation of fake news was Zuckerberg’s inability to act on the allegations. According to Vox.com, “the leaders of the largest technology companies… like to think of their sites as neutral platforms that help users share information with each other — without the company making value judgments of its own.” Before the election even took place, employees of Facebook began to question their role, and admitted that Zuckerberg himself “continued to resist the notion that Facebook can unduly affect how people think and behave.” This inaction continued even after the election, when he posted a message on his own Facebook page claiming it was “extremely unlikely” that hoaxes on Facebook shaped the election. It wasn’t until the extent of the stories and the extent of their influence became more widely publicized that he changed the tone of his argument, and outlined future reforms for the site in the wake of the controversy.

Over the next four years, social media — and Facebook in particular — will only grow in its influence as a source of news to a majority of the American public. While social media sites’ approach towards the election offered “too little too late” in terms of censorship by allowing stories – such as the Denver Guardian’s claim that “an F.B.I. agent connected to Mrs. Clinton’s email disclosures had murdered his wife and shot himself” – to circulate and influence the opinions of many key voting blocs, they still have the ability to reform their methods and become a justifiable platform for news. If Zuckerberg recognizes his role as an arbiter soon enough, and holds true to the reforms he promised in his most recent post, he will hopefully be able to effectively improve the way information is disseminated on his site and keep something like this from happening again.