Since the 2016 election, Facebook, as the world’s largest social media platform has endured relentless criticism. In April, I wrote on the Mark Zuckerberg congressional hearings in what was essentially a 2-day attack on not just Facebook, but Mark Zuckerberg in particular, and on social media more generally. Viewers generally made two important observations about Congress on both sides of the aisle: First, our elected officials have mostly no idea about the internet, let alone Facebook works. Second, they hold a strong contempt for Facebook and want to regulate it immediately. Democrats distrusted the platform based on its size and success alone. Republicans argued they are the primary targets of left-wing bias on the platform and have suffered election losses because of it.
It seems an ugly stock drop in July convinced Facebook to yield to Congress. Recently, Facebook deployed a fact-check program, allowing outlets to suppress content they consider false. Only five outlets have the power to “fact check” on Facebook. Four of Facebook’s chosen fact-checkers, the Associated Press, Factcheck.org, PolitiFact, and Snopes, are widely considered nonpartisan. The fifth, however, is the Weekly Standard (WS). While WS is one of my favorite publications and has high-quality editorial content, it also has a conservative ideological bent. Most subscribers read its content with that subtext in mind — if not top of mind — and this week, the WS used its powerful gatekeeping role in a troubling way, to suppress a liberal opinion piece (well-articulated by Slate writer Mark Joseph Stern here).
WS rated an opinion editorial written by Ian Millhiser of ThinkProgress ‘false’, which essentially prevents Facebook users from accessing the article. Should Facebook groups and pages share articles that are voted ‘false’ from fact-checkers, Facebook can restrict the privileges of page administrators, forbid advertising and even disable pages entirely.
Liberals now say that Facebook is catering to conservatives, who have long suspected left-wing bias in Silicon Valley (and in Hollywood, popular music, mainstream cable news, higher education, primary education, etc.) But whether it was liberal Think Progress or conservative Weekly Standard who rated the other’s content ‘false’, neutrality would be in severe question. Zuckerberg and Congress must realize that the fact-checker initiative can do nothing to ensure neutrality, it can only promote partisan censorship. By cowering before Congress and charging its own employees with the task of editorial discernment ensures Facebook will inevitably facilitate partisan bias.
In the final months of the 2016 presidential election, fake election news stories on Facebook generated more engagement than the top stories from major news outlets such as the New York Times and NBC News, according to BuzzFeed News analysis.
Hyper-partisan Facebook pages and their websites were publishing false or misleading content at an alarming rate — and generating significant Facebook engagement in the process. But none of this can be objectively attributed to Facebook’s platform. It is the mere reflection of our hyper-partisan polarized culture. It is Facebook users that expand the fake news industry by feeding into the hyperbole, allowing the most sensationalized stories to “trend.”
It is Facebook users that expand the fake news industry by feeding into the hyperbole, allowing the most sensationalized stories to “trend.”
To be clear: Fake News outlets are online or print publishers which deliberately disseminate fake news stories such as hoaxes, propaganda or other disinformation. Proponents of the fact-checker initiative maintain that fake news is indistinguishable from real news by the average American to identify. Pitifully, our President is maybe the most ill-equipped at its identification, and he uses the term excessively solely to deny news reports. I must challenge that only basic critical thinking skills are necessary to discern fake from real news; and that when in doubt, a free and open internet (while we have it) provides sufficient resources for individual inquiry.
That said, fake news does not (again, does not) include op-ed commentary. No matter what we believe to be true of the writer’s intent, the definition of an opinion is a statement that cannot be deemed false. Opinion is the essence of free speech and ought to be exempt from the Facebook fact-checking initiative.
“Over the years, we’ve effectively brainwashed the core of our audience to distrust anything that they disagree with. And now it’s gone too far,” said John Ziegler, Conservative film writer, director, and radio host.
As consumers, we are only as naïve as we allow ourselves to be. It is our responsibility to do the work; to discern truth from falsehood, commentary from journalism and neutrality from partisanship. To trust this responsibility to Congress or private corporations is futile.
If anything, perhaps our two-party electoral system is a likely culprit for our obsession with hyperbole. The innate shortcomings of a winner-take-all political system include insistent rivalry (pettiness), eliminating the perks of finding common ground for politicians. Contrary to claims that American political parties have to appeal broadly to win, only 27% of the voting age population votes on average; so really, they only need to win a quarter of the voting-age population to gain unified control of government in Washington, and their presidential nominee needs to win far less than that. This was true in 2016, and in 2008.
As much as we would all like this to change, why in the hell is this Facebook’s problem to solve? How does a nation built on the principles of individual aptitude, freedom of thought and freedom of expression mature only to reassign basic critical thinking functions to its institutions?
In my opinion, there is no sound defense of suppression of Millhiser’s piece.” The commentary itself was backed with well-researched, scholarly content. WS even admitted that the content had nothing to do with their false rating — it was the article’s title. What exactly was in question? The definition of the word “say.”
The fact is: Fake news outperforms real news on Facebook and everywhere else — and that the increasingly gullible public refuses to be held accountable.