When I first came across the Buzzfeed report on “How Teens In The Balkans Are Duping Trump Supporters With Fake News,” I reposted it on Yonder’s Facebook page. I was not thinking about why the hell Facebook is letting the issue go. My take on the matter was that the teenagers from Macedonia were allowed to create fake U.S. political websites because the American election campaign was way too long, and therefore well-suited to create these kinds of business opportunities. I did not think that these young internet savants — who were just trying to earn some pocket money — could actually have an impact on the outcome of the presidential election. I deeply trusted my and other readers’ judgment — our capacity to debunk a hoax in the same way that we do with fake online Apple customer service, for instance.
But later on, Buzzfeed did some additional research and arrived at the conclusion that internet-generated fake news posts on Facebook attracted more attention and clicks than mainstream publications like the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Huffington Post, NBC News, and others when distributed on Facebook. Craig Silverman created a real buzz and got our attention by hinting that Trump might have been elected with the help of Facebook.
Apriti il cielo is an Italian expression for times like this, when a situation gets out-of-hand and the speaker appeals to the Creator to resolve the problem.
In fact Mark Zuckerberg, the founder and CEO of Facebook, soon appeared in the news, denying the importance of the Buzzfeed discovery. It was a denial in the perfect style of the new Trump era that started with the brand manager’s surprise electoral victory. Debate has raged about fake news on Facebook, whether the publisher should block the fake news from becoming viral on social networks while the mainstream media stayed focused on Trump Tower in New York City, where the president-elect is trying to figure out whose advice he should listen to when he moves to the White House on January 20.
Quite a few good pieces have been written related to this complex argument, which touches upon many other issues and denotes the post-truth era that we live in. Stratechery published one such piece on Wednesday. The article opens with claim that it matters less what is fake and more who decides what is news in the first place, and it focuses on the role of the gatekeeper in what cannot — and perhaps should not — be published on net:
In the case of Facebook, the social network started with the foundation of pre-existing offline networks that were moved online. […] It followed, then, that it was in the interest of media companies, businesses, and basically anyone else who wanted to get the attention of users, to be on Facebook as well. This was great for Facebook: the more compelling content it could provide to its users, the more time they would spend on Facebook; the more time they spent on Facebook, the more opportunities Facebook would have to place advertisements in front of them. And, critically, the more time users spent on Facebook, the less time they had to read anything else, further increasing the motivation for media companies (and businesses of all types) to be on Facebook themselves, resulting in a virtuous cycle in Facebook’s favor.
Stratechery then argues whether Facebook should regulate this, or should we the readers be more active in fact checking. Because it wasn’t just Facebook generating fake news during this election — even cable TV did it.
In an extremely interesting and well-researched piece, NPR gets to the heart of the matter, describing how thousands of Facebook’s employed fact checkers work from Manila and Warsaw. “Current and former employees of Facebook say that they’ve observed these subcontractors in action; that they are told to go fast — very fast; that they’re evaluated on speed; and that on average, a worker makes a decision about a piece of flagged content once every 10 seconds. […] That means they’re clearing 2,880 posts a day per person.”
And they make mistakes — partially because of the speed at which they’re doing their jobs, but most of the time because of their limited access to the content, the bad procedures, and a lack of appropriate technology.
The fake news received enough buzz to even reach the White House and travel 6,000 miles to Berlin, where Obama, standing next to the chancellor Angela Merkel, took part in the discussion :
“If we are not serious about facts and what’s true and what’s not, and particularly in an age of social media, where so many people are getting their information in sound bites and snippets off their phones, if we can’t discriminate between serious arguments and propaganda, then we have problems,” Obama said.
Obama said that if all people, both conservative and liberal, took absolutist views and demonized their opponents, then “democracy will break down.” In a previous speech, Obama said that the repetition of these attacks and “outright lies” on Facebook will cause people to actually start believing them.
“It creates this dust cloud of nonsense,” he said.
However, my favorite contribution to this discussion so far comes from Rob Horning of the New Inquiry, an online news source where a group of editors and writers provides some of the best content available on the internet today. Horning wrote a list of his thoughts regarding the issue of fake news on his Tumblr blog:
Since people use Facebook not to be informed but to belong or be connected or to get attention or to be entertained, any information on Facebook will be used to those ends and not the ends of constructing a more accurate understanding of the world. (It is not like Google, which people don’t use to perform or express themselves but to get information they need. Google has economic incentives to be accurate.) The presence of outrageously fake news on Facebook may even remind users of this, that what they are seeing is an entertainment-oriented reflection of the world they would like to see and believe in, not the world as it is.
Facebook is for engagement, not truth. It provides us a means by which we can inhabit and operate pleasurable fictions. The narratives facilitated within Facebook should be understood as fictional. We participate in and consume our lives vicariously through Facebook.