Facebook CEO and co-founder Mark Zuckerberg is vowing to crack down on fake news articles posted to the popular social media website after coming under fire from Vox and others who have accused the site of contributing to Republican candidate Donald Trump’s victory in last Tuesday’s presidential election.
“Over the last generation, there’s been a big shift in the way people find news stories,” Timothy B. Lee wrote in a Vox article titled “Mark Zuckerberg is in denial about how Facebook is harming our politics” published Thursday. “We used to get our news from the morning newspaper and the nightly news. Now more and more of us pull out our smartphones and look at our Facebook feeds.”
In Lee’s view, this has had a detrimental effect on the way people gather and process information, especially as it relates to politics.
“The result has been a disaster for the public’s understanding of current affairs. Reporters have come under increasing pressure to write ‘clickbait’ articles that pander to readers’ worst impulses. Too-good-to-check stories gain more traction online than stories that are balanced and thoroughly reported. Partisans share totally fake stories from fringe websites. That has worsened the nation’s political polarization and lowered the quality of democratic discourse.”
Lee is not alone in his criticism. Sam Biddle took a similar, though arguably more harshly worded, view in an article titled “Facebook, I’m Begging You, Please Make Yourself Better” he wrote for The Intercept.
“You can blame Facebook outright for Trump’s victory, or not,” Biddle says. “But at the very least, we should demand from them some accountability for their role in spreading the present toxic sea of deliberate misinformation and non-factual chaos.”
This Facebook trending story is 100% made up.
Nothing in it is true.
This post of it alone has 10k shares in the last six hours. pic.twitter.com/UpgNtMo3xZ
— Ben Collins (@oneunderscore__) November 14, 2016
Zuckerberg initially denied Facebook had any role in influencing the election. When interviewer David Kirkpatrick broached the subject with Zuckerberg at the Techonomy conference last week after the election, the Facebook CEO called the idea “crazy.”
“Personally I think the idea that fake news on Facebook, which is a very small amount of the content, influenced the election in any way — I think is a pretty crazy idea,” Zuckerberg told Kirkpatrick, according to a report from The Verge. “Voters make decisions based on their lived experience.”
In a Facebook post from Saturday, Zuckerberg change his tune somewhat.
“[W]e don’t want any hoaxes on Facebook. Our goal is to show people the content they will find most meaningful, and people want accurate news. We have already launched work enabling our community to flag hoaxes and fake news, and there is more we can do here. We have made progress, and we will continue to work on this to improve further.”
However, in the post Zuckerberg maintains that the social media site still wants to “give every person a voice” and insists that “of all the content on Facebook, more than 99 percent of what people see is authentic.”
The problem that Mark Zuckerberg and others run into when they try to edit or curate news is that defining and recognizing “the truth” can be a very tricky proposition.
“This is an area where I believe we must proceed very carefully though. Identifying the ‘truth’ is complicated. While some hoaxes can be completely debunked, a greater amount of content, including from mainstream sources, often gets the basic idea right but some details wrong or omitted. An even greater volume of stories express an opinion that many will disagree with and flag as incorrect even when factual. I am confident we can find ways for our community to tell us what content is most meaningful, but I believe we must be extremely cautious about becoming arbiters of truth ourselves.”
While Vox, The Intercept, and others have been critical of Facebook’s approach, others have defended the site. Tech website Gizmodo also published an article on the issue. When they posted the article to Facebook, they included the comment “Not a media company,” paraphrasing a response that Zuckerberg initially gave that suggested Facebook is not responsible for editing content because it is a tech and social networking site rather than a media site.
It will be interesting to see what direction the Facebook crackdown on fake news might take. If history is any indicator, no matter what decision Mark Zuckerberg and his team make there is bound to be some dissent.
[Featured Image by Dan Kitwood/Getty Images]