One thing must be made abundantly clear: Facebook is a media company. Same goes for Twitter, but these companies both love to insist that they are platforms, because all they’re doing is creating a space for people to share media. By doing this, they can completely shuck any responsibility for what happen on their platforms. We, as consumers, must let them know that we will not accept this.
During the 2016 campaign, many fake news (the type that’s actually fake not the type that Trump just doesn’t like) articles were peddled on Facebook. Most people read the headline, maybe read the article, but never question the validity of the source. This led to massive misinformation, particularly on the right, and had a big hand in electing Donald Trump. Most of these fake articles are coming from the Kremlin, and a couple opportunists trying to make a quick buck off the ad revenue. Facebook denied any responsibility whatsoever, insisting that they have no control over what their users post, that they are nothing more than a blank slate.
The fact of the matter is that most people get a lot of their news from social media. People no longer have the paper delivered to their house every morning, or even go to websites to read the front page, instead they scroll through their Facebook feed and see what their friends are sharing. What their friends were sharing, particularly if you were a Trump supporter in 2016, was mostly false. The Pope never endorsed Trump, Hillary Clinton wasn’t running a secret pedophilia ring through a pizza shop. However, when your friends are all reading this and agreeing with it, you’re not going to think about the validity of the source. Take Breitbart, a website full of complete and total lies, who’s former chief editor helped run the Trump campaign. If you’re a Trump supporter, of course you’re going to believe whatever Breitbart writes. I know I never question when my friends post a screenshot of some article on Instagram. The onus, then, must be on these social media platforms to intelligently remove fake news from their platforms, that’s the only way we’re going to restore truth to our political discourse. While some people may argue that this is a slippery slope towards politically motivated censorship, I think we’ve all witnessed that the price of not having these safeguards is very, very, steep — so it’s at least worth trying to combat this wave of propaganda. Facebook has Artificial Intelligences running around the clock to select which posts are going to get the most engagement, they could easily train one to decipher fact from fiction.
While much of the fake news discussion centers around 2016, it is not an issue specific to the campaign, and it is very much ongoing. Less than a week ago, youtuber Shane Dawson was accused of pedophilia. A video taking several jokes he made more than six years ago completely out of context went viral. It was a non story, and anyone could tell that with five minutes of research. Twitter, nonetheless, created a “twitter moment” on the subject with headlines such as “Is Shane Dawson a Pedophile,” or “Youtuber Shane Dawson Accused of Pedophilia.” A company as big as Twitter should be able to have one employee run a five minute Google search to check the validity of this story. The thing is, social media companies just don’t care, they don’t think it’s their job.
In years past, there were of course large corporations with massive control over our public discourse. Cable news and the big print newspapers come to mind. However, in exchange for being granted this level of power, these companies accepted certain rules: journalistic ideals of objectivity and truth. Today, the companies with some of the largest say over our elections are social media companies. If we don’t force them to accept the same ideals of their predecessors, of course they’re going to peddle fake news. The real world is boring most of the time, but if you can just make up whatever you want — well, you’re going to get a whole lot of clicks.