Editorial: The Facebook problem
Mark Zuckerberg’s claim that fake news does not influence important choices is inaccurate and naive.
Mark Zuckerberg, the founder and CEO of Facebook, is undoubtedly a smart guy. He just hasn’t sounded the part lately.
Facebook has faced criticism over fake news stories that circulated on the social media platform during the election. One that got particular attention is a fake account of Pope Francis supporting Donald Trump.
Zuckerberg last week blogged that it was “extremely unlikely” that phony stories changed the election outcome. He then doubled down in a speech last week, telling attendees at a tech conference: “To think it influenced the election in any way is a pretty crazy idea.”
At last count, President-elect Trump’s win in Michigan came by just more than 13,000 votes. Facebook has nearly 1.8 billion users. Facebook makes its living by convincing advertisers that it can influence millions upon millions of those users.
So, what is it, Mr. Zuckerberg? Does the content on Facebook have the power to influence or not?
Zuckerberg’s claim that fake news didn’t influence the outcome of the election “in any way” might be the craziest statement he has made on the subject, but it is not the most naive. That honor would go to this statement on Zuckerberg’s blog: “Our goal is to show people the content they will find most meaningful, and people want accurate news.”
The idea that people want accurate news might warm the hearts of journalists, but as anyone who has staffed a newsroom knows, it is not universally true. A significant portion of readers want news that reinforces their world view. Truth is icing on the cake — tasty but not necessary.
It is not “crazy” to believe that Facebook played a major role in shaping the views that voters took with them into the ballot box. After all, it is a whole lot easier to push out falsehoods that reinforce partisan narratives than it is to develop real solutions and campaign on them.
It is worth noting that both Google and Facebook have announced efforts this week to combat fake news sites. Google will ban websites that promote fake news from using Google’s online advertising service, and Facebook has changed one of its policies related to how advertising and fake news can exist on the site, The New York Times reports.
Ultimately, changes at Facebook, while welcome and necessary, are not likely to solve this dilemma. Rather, Americans have to view their “news” feeds with a little more skepticism and spend more time researching the sources behind the headlines their friends are sharing.
Zuckerberg founded Facebook as a site to rate female students at Harvard. It was not meant to be nor has it grown to be an outlet for the sharing of credible news and information. That’s a perspective worth keeping top of mind during the next election season.