By Doug Porter
In the 21st century world of social media as a source of news and information, the truth doesn’t seem to matter anymore. Tell a lie on Facebook and you’ll likely be rewarded with a large audience. Tell (for some) an unpleasant truth and the vigilantes of darkness will leverage their technical expertise to get an offending account expunged.
A made up story from a Macedonian site claiming Hillary Clinton had once said candidates like Donald Trump should run for office because they were honest and couldn’t be bought garnered more than twice the response (in a week) of the New York Times exclusive story (over a month period) revealing the GOP nominee declared a $916 million loss on his 1995 income tax returns.
Diverse media outlets including the New York Times and the MIT Technology Review are examining how much those fake headlines influenced the election. New York Magazine cut to the chase with the headline “Donald Trump won because of Facebook.”
When 99% Just Won’t Do
Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg recently responded to concerns about whether or no the outcome of the election was influenced by fake news appearing on feeds.
After the election, many people are asking whether fake news contributed to the result, and what our responsibility is to prevent fake news from spreading. These are very important questions and I care deeply about getting them right. I want to do my best to explain what we know here.
Of all the content on Facebook, more than 99% of what people see is authentic. Only a very small amount is fake news and hoaxes. The hoaxes that do exist are not limited to one partisan view, or even to politics. Overall, this makes it extremely unlikely hoaxes changed the outcome of this election in one direction or the other.
Reformed angel investor Rick Webb responded to Zuckerberg on ShiftNewCo, saying ‘not so fast.’
Fake news is only one of the problems with Facebook. A thousand “Hillary Clinton is a crook” “opinion pieces” probably don’t fall into your count of fake news per se (even though, it’s worth pointing out that their very title would constitute libel and is a lie). And opinion pieces are much, much harder to police. But we should never forget that hate speech, offensive memes, and hit pieces are the bread and butter of Facebook politicking, and they are, presumably, not counted in the rosy 99% figure. There are legitimate critiques around Facebook’s policies and implementations here. Like you said, “there is more we can do here.” But, since the “embrace” (the cold, cold, deathly embrace) of news is a recent Facebook endeavor, let us focus on it here. Thus we’ll confine ourselves to the news today.
Moving to news, then, let’s state the obvious. Saying you’re 99% accurate in the news is a complete failure. Can you imagine the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, CNN or, hell, even Breitbart saying “hey, only 1% or so of our stories are wrong.” Even one incorrect news story is a terrible tragedy — especially at scale. Considering there are tens of thousands of news stories passing through Facebook, we are talking, at 1%, a minimum of hundreds of incorrect news stories. Countries have gone to war on less. Countries have executed people on less.
At the bottom of all the “programming” seen on Facebook are the 21st Century Miracle Workers called algorithms. These, Webb points out, make news a popularity contest.
Following a news organization on a social network is a good idea on paper, sure. But you mucked it up with the algorithm. I can’t actually follow The New York Times or Buzzfeed or Fox News on Facebook. “Follow” is a misleading term. All I can do is click a button that says “hey if one of their stories is super popular, maybe think about showing it to me.” It’s like if I subscribed to a newspaper and, rather than being able to read the whole thing, I let my crazy aunt Mable cut it up, annotate it, and only let me read those parts.
Echo Chambers of False Information
Donald J. Trump’s supporters were probably heartened in September, when, according to an article shared nearly a million times on Facebook, the candidate received an endorsement from Pope Francis. Their opinions on Hillary Clinton may have soured even further after reading a Denver Guardian article that also spread widely on Facebook, which reported days before the election that an F.B.I. agent suspected of involvement in leaking Mrs. Clinton’s emails was found dead in an apparent murder-suicide.
There is just one problem with these articles: They were completely fake.
The pope, a vociferous advocate for refugees, never endorsed anyone. The Denver Guardian doesn’t exist. Yet thanks to Facebook, both of these articles were seen by potentially millions of people. Although corrections also circulated on the social network, they barely registered compared with the reach of the original fabrications.
This is not an anomaly: I encountered thousands of such fake stories last year on social media — and so did American voters, 44 percent of whom use Facebook to get news.
She points out Facebook’s claims about being neutral amount to a “false and dangerous stance and their “business model, algorithms and policies entrench echo chambers and fuel the spread of misinformation.”
UPDATE (4:15pm Tues): The ‘news’ site of Trump’s senior advisor is pushing this fake map on Facebook. All hail the new Pravda!
The map is fake. The story is incredibly misleading. And it’s spreading like crazy all over Facebook. pic.twitter.com/8MmAZaKxwz
— Mike Baker (@ByMikeBaker) November 15, 2016
Bullshit vs Lies
The 99% of ‘truthier’ stories Zuckerberg wants us to believe are the mainstay of Facebook’s influence must just not be included in my feed. I don’t remember clicking on a button saying I wanted bullshit (mine was largely of the Bernie Bros flavor), but, hey, maybe I didn’t read the fine print.
Former Facebook designer Bobby Goodlatte took to Medium.com to give us the straight poop on bullshit:
Harry Frankfurt, a Princeton professor of philosophy emeritus, wrote a fantastic academic paper: On Bullshit. If you’d prefer a 5-minute version, check out this Jon Stewart interview (or this or this).
Frankfurt’s distinction between lying and bullshitting is as such:
A liar is someone who believes they know the truth and deliberately mis-represents the truth.
A bullshitter has little or no concern for the truth either way. The bullshitter aims to tell a narrative, or simply to impress. Facts are useful to the bullshitter if they align with the narrative—otherwise they’ll be ignored, stretched, or improvised.
The liar at least cares enough about the truth to learn it for themselves. Often the bullshitter is not interested in learning the truth whatsoever.
Bullshit is far more prevalent in today’s media environment than lying. Both lies and bullshit are morally troubling, but liars are easier to spot than bullshitters. And while the liar may be scorned for lying, the bullshitter might instead be celebrated for advancing an agenda. Bullshit represents a fundamental disrespect for truth—it is more dangerous to society than lying.
Digital Red Lining
After Sociology professor Tressie McMillan Cottom reposted an article from the daily newspaper of record in Richmond, VA about students protesting Trump’s election and praised them for ‘practicing democracy,’ her Facebook account was suspended. She was ‘reported’ by persons unknown for the heinous crime of using a nickname (for the last seven years) to identify herself on Facebook.
I use the same name I use on other digital platforms: Tressie McPhd. Approximately 20,000 readers know me as that on Twitter. I have been cited thusly (much to my chagrin) in newspapers, broadcast news stories and academic articles. For better or for worse, the moniker I chose one night, maybe while a little drunk, over seven years ago has stuck. In that sense, it is a name.
I am not the only one to get this message this week. Lots of people reported similarly on Twitter.
Unfortunately for someone, I am a sociologist who studies digital sociology and I got this message this week.
She goes on to point out that reactionaries are increasingly using technological skills and bureaucratic inefficiencies to stack the deck in public discourse.
….reporting someone for profanity or racism on Facebook is less likely to elicit a corporate response than reporting them for not using their “real name”, as many users have found out. It is more common that Facebook will ban non-white, non-male, non-Western users for violating ethical codes when they write against racism or sexism or inequality than they will ban those who post actual racist or sexist content. See the case of popular black writer, Son of Baldwin:
In the meanwhile, those who create fake news for profit have a lot in common with those who report news they don’t agree with as an illegal “other” in the digitally-mediated social sphere that is Facebook.
When the platform’s architecture privileges these kinds of subversive anti-speech acts, it is creating a moral economy for content and persons. That moral economy, at present, privileges fake news and real names over pluralism and informed debate. And, it will necessarily privilege the already privileged at the expense of women, people of color, and other minority groups.
Time for a Wakeup Call
At Yahoo Finance, Daniel Roberts says Facebook’s claims are contradicted by studies and includes this tidbit:.
Before the election, a Nov. 1 report from social analytics firm EzyInsights showed that Trump’s campaign utilized Facebook much more successfully than Clinton’s. Trump posted live video and native video to Facebook more frequently (and, interestingly, more erratically, which worked), and saw higher engagement on those videos. After Trump’s win, it’s hard to argue his use of Facebook didn’t help.
Now EzyInsights has shared new data with Yahoo Finance on the frequency of Facebook posts from certain media outlets. The data shows a “dramatic rise,” as the election neared, in the frequency and popularity of posts from Fox News, Breitbart, Conservative Tribune, and other overtly right-wing outlets. There was not as much of an upswing in content from left-wing publishers, though Steve El-Sharawy of EzyInsights cautions, “There aren’t necessarily the equivalent number of staunch left-wing publications that we’re aware of or perhaps even exist.”
It’s also not unrelated that an Anti-Defamation League report on the rise of anti-Semitic abuse on Twitter concluded that “a disproportionate volume” of the abuse came from Trump supporters.
Trump’s campaign posted more content to Facebook, and right-wing outlets posted more content to Facebook. It’s hard to wave off the obvious correlation between volume of Facebook posts and the final election result.
Fake news isn’t limited to Facebook. For much of the past 24 hours Google’s top election story says Donald Trump won the popular vote.
Not that facts matter anymore, but here’s the latest on the actual count, via Politifact:
The most comprehensive vote-tracking analysis is published by David Wasserman of the nonpartisan Cook Political Report. As of 2:30 p.m. on Nov. 14, according to Wasserman’s calculations, Clinton led Trump by 784,748 votes — specifically, 61,422,098 for Clinton, 60,637,350 for Trump, and 6,691,311 for other candidates.
Here’s an idea from former Facebook designer Webb: let’s try humans and algorithms. Maybe even have a contest.
And maybe we should rethink the idea of ditching our dead-tree subscriptions. This may sound weird coming from a guy writing on an all-volunteer (and non-monetized) platform, but I think a few more paid adults in the room might be a good idea.
On This Day: 1881 – The Founding convention of the Federation of Trades and Labor Unions was held in Pittsburgh. It urged enactment of employer liability, compulsory education, uniform apprenticeship and child and convict labor laws. Five years later it changed its name to the American Federation of Labor. 1969 – In Washington, DC, a quarter of a million protesters staged a peaceful demonstration against the Vietnam War. 1990 – David Bowie opened on Broadway in the title role of “The Elephant Man.”
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