Mark Zuckerberg outlines plan to address fake news, but that was only part of the problem
After the 2016 election’s outcome shocked roughly half the nation two weeks ago, outraged and confused Americans blamed misleading pollsters, the media, and for the first time ever, social media outlets like Facebook for helping to create a false reality. The main accusation against Facebook was that it enabled fake news stories to circulate far and wide on millions of users’ newsfeeds, and in response, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg announced his plan to combat fake news stories. It’s by no means an awful plan, and catching and reducing the spread of lies is obviously important, but it overlooks another hugely consequential criticism of Facebook’s weaknesses this election season: the creation of liberal and conservative “echo chambers.”
In his Facebook post discussing the social media outlet’s plan to fight fake news, Zuckerberg stated that Facebook is developing a “warning feature” that will serve to alert users of a potentially false news article. He also claims that Facebook is working to combat “fake news economics,” or the system in place that encourages “financially motivated spam.” However, Zuckerberg also notes that Facebook has long relied on users to report stories as false and share fact-checking, myth-busting links, and that the social media outlet’s goal is not to “discourage sharing of opinions” nor “to be arbiters of truth ourselves, but instead rely on our community and trusted third parties.”
Zuckerberg’s plan will surely hurt the credibility of fake news outlets, but ultimately, it overlooks the fact that people more often than not will believe what they want to believe. If they want to believe Hillary Clinton is a crook or that Ted Cruz’s dad killed John F. Kennedy, a small alert saying the outlet reporting this might not be credible isn’t going to stop them.
A lot of what actually happened and what was actually said and done during the election was far more farcical than any content fake news sites could come up with. People can look at objective facts and evidence, like actual video footage of president-elect Donald Trump saying that being “a star” allowed him to “do anything” and “grab [women] by the pussy,” and take away very different interpretations based on their predetermined biases.
In many cases, people across all political spectrums believe what they want to believe, arguably because to them, their beliefs are legitimized by the media they consume in their newsfeeds. They follow news outlets that pander to a certain political perspective, be this progressive or conservative, and seeing only stories that cater to this viewpoint can mislead users to be confident that their view is the majority, and make them unaware of how pervasive other views are.
I’m not at all saying that liberal news media and conservative news media are the same beast, or equating Salon with Breitbart News. But liberal-leaning media on Facebook is flawed in creating the same type of condensed content, with context excluded in short video summaries of news. That being said, it’s not fair to go so far as to equate left-leaning, progressive outlets with right-leaning outlets promoting ideas that undermine the humanity of marginalized groups. There’s a huge difference between demanding respect for pronouns and preaching neo-Nazism.
The overarching point here is that echo chambers, whether they’re promoting the alt-right or equality and inclusiveness, are never good, because they prevent individuals from being cognizant of other views and the popularity of these other views. And no matter how fucked up these views are, it’s still critical that we know they exist and know how widespread they are, so we don’t get thrown enormous curveballs like election night again and so we know how to respond to these views beyond the typical straw man arguments produced by echo-chamber media.
The only way for Facebook to address the phenomenon of echo chambers, as it obviously can’t tell users which outlets they should or shouldn’t like/follow, is to reevaluate its use of algorithms that solely refer users to content of their political leaning based on the type of content they like. Zuckerberg has yet to comment on whether or not Facebook will address this.
The issue of Facebook newsfeeds propagating the false sense that one’s views are shared by the majority is arguably an issue it shares with news media outlets as a whole. Recurring criticisms were that the media was totally biased against Trump in portraying him as a bigot by covering all the bigoted things he said and did, as well as that covering Trump so often and being so consistently outraged by his actions was counterproductive. Although, simultaneously, not being outraged by Trump’s words and deeds would just serve to normalize utter indecency, as much of the media is doing now.
The 2016 election, from the campaign trail to an election night that shocked the world, exposed many flaws and potholes in both social media and political journalism, and all we can do now is take heed of them as we move on to covering the next four years.