Social Media Created the Explosion of Fake News and Clickbait. They Must Now Fix It.
The question of how Donald Trump got to become the president-elect while remaining an orange hothead has many answers, the first and foremost among which is that he's riding a wave of white backlash that is overriding the will of the people, who have voted for Hillary Clinton millions of votes.
But in the age of Donald Trump, fake news is huge. Steve Bannon, Trump's chief strategist and proclaimed white supremacist, pioneered fake news and clickbait with the racist, sexist advent of Breitbart.com. Fake clickbait "news" has combined with social media and search engines in a toxic goo of information blackout, lethal to democracy itself.
We have all seen them. Fake news stories and clickbait headlines rising on top of Google news searches and Facebook feeds, generate clicks, arguments, comments, reactions and thus rising higher and higher.
One of the core problems social media has presented us with is that instead of diversifying our opinions and promoting mutual understanding, it has put us in silos and echo chambers where people are spreading only messages they already believe, agreeing with those who already agree with them, and vehemently declining to consider any point of view - or far more dangerously, any fact - that contradicts this confirmation bias.
Let's be clear, however: the major problem presented by fake news and clickbait growing like cancer on social media is not its isolating quality. Neither is the major problem that people are losing an understanding of other points of view, of compromising, of how government really is supposed to work, though these are in and of themselves serious concerns.
The grave problem threatening the very existence of America is the ability of social media and search engine algorithms to spread at the speed of light propaganda bereft of factual truth.
Fake news. "News" that is given the appearance of reality but isn't. "News" that creates eyepopping headlines that are disproved by the facts. "News" that is meant to extract a reaction from a certain group of people, with no regard for facts or context.
Facebook's Mark Zuckerberg said in the wake of people questioning the immensely popular social network's role that it is ridiculous to claim that fake news on Facebook may have altered the election result, and that it would be technological difficult to police fake news.
The last part of that claim was flatly disproved this weekend as a team of four students - three of them undergraduates - in under 36 hours designed an algorithm to weed out fake news and clickbait.
And that is something Facebook reportedly could have done themselves early this year. They had the tools to do so, but they chose not to because... are you ready for this... downgrading misinformation would have disproportionately affected right wing sites.
One source said high-ranking officials were briefed on a planned News Feed update that would have identified fake or hoax news stories, but disproportionately impacted right-wing news sites by downgrading or removing that content from people’s feeds.
Because the right wing spreads more misinformation and outright lies made to look like "news", Facebook made a decision to be "balanced" instead of factual.
Don't worry, we on the Left have our own culprits: Buzzfeed found that of the Fake News clickbait websites, conservatives are guilty of spreading lies about 40% of the time, liberals half that. What was really concerning, however, is that the headlines with misleading information and outright lies got far more shares, likes and comments than stories that were factual.
Facebook's denial of Buzzfeed's report that they had and shelved tools that could have protected their users from fake news was undercut yesterday, however, when the company announced that they would be joining Google in cutting off ads (and thus revenue) to fake news sites. How, one may be forgiven for being curious, did Facebook plan to identify Fake news sites for their ad policy if they had not already devised the tools to do so?
Zuckerberg's defensive posture was met with a far more cooperative Google CEO Sundar Pichai this week. Pichai told the BBC yesterday that he believes fake news as a whole is a problem.
We have not however, thus far answered one basic question about Fake news and social media (and search engines). Let's assume social media and technology behemoths possess the technological tools to severely limit the impact of fake news if not to root it out completely (and if they don't, the aforementioned students are offering their code as an open source, free project). Do they have a responsibility to police content their users decide to put out? They are not, after all, newspapers.
The fact is, they already interact with the content their users put out. They already exercise editorial discretion by the means of programming algorithms. Posts with more comments and more reactions do not rise to the top of our feeds by some miracle of nature. Facebook programming is geared so that those things gain visibility. A fake news story doesn't rise to the top of a Google News search result by random convergence. Google's algorithms ensure that pages with certain keywords, link-backs and clicks get high visibility.
Monitoring and ranking content is not by itself a novel concept from companies that distribute the platforms. In fact, it is the entire purpose of these platforms. Monitoring by their truthfulness rather than by eyeballs grabbed is simply a different way of monitoring content (a way that our overall media, not just social media, would be wise to adopt).
Because this is true, because their own product designs - and their own conscious neglecting of tools to identify fake news - have resulted in the meteoric rise of fake news, clickbait, propaganda and hate speech, it is their job now to clean it up.
In our democracy, each of us, individuals and corporations, have a responsibility to serve the cause of an informed electorate. The responsibility is greatest for the free press, but the responsibility of corporations that specifically sell themselves as a content or content promotion platform is no less.
In the aftermath of this election where we have seen the will of the people undermined and racism, sexism, homophobia, xenophobia and other forms of bigotry and bullying rise all the way to the White House, all of us, including corporate citizens, must use the tools at our disposal to fight the spread of a hateful ideology. Now is the time to repair our democracy, and platforms that aim to help us become informed must be allies in that task.
The announcement from Google and Facebook that they will no longer advertise on Fake news sites is a good first step. But it is not nearly enough. Both platforms as well as others must work to ensure that propaganda, clickbait and fake news is not promoted on their own platforms, that their tools cannot be used to generate hate speech in the name of opinion. It is not just the outcry of people who live and work where they are located, it is their civic duty.
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