A few weeks ago, Donald J. Trump won the general presidential election here in the U.S.
According to BuzzFeed News, of the 20 most popular election stories between August and Election Day, fake news sites boasted over a million more engagements than real news sites on behemoth social media platform Facebook.
If any of you are like me, you probably saw and even clicked one or two such headlines in an effort to investigate. But let this truth sink in for a moment: more fake news was viewed before the election than factual news on Facebook.
Some are going so far as to claim that Facebook is at least partly to blame.
Enough criticism appeared online that Mark Zuckerberg himself shared his thoughts on the subject.
He provided a few metrics and talked about the problem of hoax content and Facebook’s mission to provide users with meaningful content. Of those metrics, the most important numbers are these: 2 million, “billions,” and >=99%.
2 million: the approximated number of people Facebook helped register to vote. That’s a lot of votes. If a little colorful banner helped a few folks to get out and vote, then more power to them all.
“Billions”: refers generally to the number of posts created and shared by Facebook users regarding the election. That’s a lot of posts.
>=99%: the percentage of posts on Facebook which can be considered accurate and authentic.
While this percentage doesn’t refer to specifically election-focused material, 1% of “billions” (3 billion, arbitrarily chosen for this example) is thirty million. That is a lot of fake posts.
In a recent episode of one of my favorite podcasts, Nilay Patel (Editor-in-chief of The Verge) and veteran tech journalist Walt Mossberg discussed this very issue. Patel very correctly noted that if any other major media company like Cox, Comcast or even The Verge admitted to <=1% of all stories being fake, these companies would almost immediately lose the trust and business of their audiences. (You can find the episode I refer to here. Their discussion starts at the 43:04 mark.)
Yet Facebook, since it does not claim to be a media company (despite a study showing that 62% of American adults get news from social media), continues to enjoy massive engagement.
I took to Facebook and Twitter to ask my friends and followers what they thought about whether the big social media sites have a responsibility to ensure accurate information and authentic sources.
On both platforms, the answer was a resounding “No.”
Many commenters on Facebook shared their opinion that it is the reader’s responsibility to think critically about what headlines they’re clicking and what sources their news comes from.
Technically, those commenters were correct. Facebook and Twitter are private companies with their own terms and conditions. They have no responsibility to police posts which do not violate their rules.
Standford University recently completed a study which examined middle school to college students’ ability to accurately assess the authenticity of a news source. Their results? “In every case and at every level, we were taken aback by students’ lack of preparation.” (Summary of the study here.) I find this to be shocking, yet believable.
With Stanford’s study in mind, it should not be surprising that Oxford Dictionary’s 2016 Word of the Year is ‘Post-truth.’
Relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief.
It seems to me that we ought to return to demanding more objective fact-based news from our friends and news sources. I refuse to take this post-truth society lying down. I have taken to commenting on posts I know to be objectively false after some fact-checking and I expect my friends and family to do the same on my own posts.
The internet is a wonderful and powerful place. Let’s utilize our access to the world’s information and make our social media feeds a more truthful mode of connection.