The mainstream media looks to Facebook and technology to solve the problem of “fake news”, while utterly ignoring their own starring role in driving readers into the arms of more disreputable news outlets
Jeff Chiu has an interesting rumination in Newsweek on the way that Facebook tacitly encouraged the monster of “fake news” which it is now being ordered to help slay.
Think back just a couple of years, before the 2016 election cycle and before Facebook set itself up as the world’s newswire. Facebook grew to a billion users by being a social network. It’s where you found old friends and kept up with family. I just looked back at my 2014 Facebook timeline. Almost zero politics! And that’s how most people liked it. Many users back then even beseeched friends to avoid political posts, or muted the violators if they persisted. In real life, most of us don’t want to argue politics with our friends and family, so why would we want to do it online?
Then, over the past two years, Facebook aggressively morphed into a media site. It set up deals with publishers to populate all our timelines with stories. It subtly encouraged users to post stories and to “like” and comment on them. Facebook, of course, did this with its own goals in mind. To maximize profit, Facebook needs to keep users engaged and on the site as long as possible, and to get those users to create or interact with all the content in their feeds. That thrum of activity helps Facebook’s algorithms more deftly target ads to more people, which makes Facebook even more attractive to advertisers.
Since politics is traditionally news, of course that topic started to slip into our feeds, and Facebook’s setup encouraged sinister practices. As users zip through their news feeds, scanning only the headlines, they are more likely to click on and share stories that are outrageous or stir emotions. In other words, Facebook—unwittingly, from what I hear—incentivized clickbait “news” over more serious news, and the success of clickbait opened the way for fake news. “We’re more likely to share inflammatory posts than non-inflammatory ones, which means that each Facebook session is a process by which we double down on the most radical beliefs in our feed,” writes Mike Caulfield, an expert in learning environments. “Marketers figured this out and realized that to get you to click, they had to up the ante. So they produced conspiracy sites that have carefully designed, fictional stories that are inflammatory enough that you will click.”
It’s hard to say whether Facebook is the chicken or the egg in this wave of political propaganda—whether it helped create the acidic and divided politics around the world or if the ugly political environment merely found an accommodating home on Facebook. No doubt it was some of both, and the result is that our feeds are now overwhelmed with wingnut political content that gets amplified even if it’s crazy. During the election, a lot of Facebook users just didn’t care if something was true, says Paul Mihailidis, a media literacy professor at Emerson College. “They saw it as a way to advocate,” he says. “They see a catchy headline, and the default is to share.” If you look globally—the U.S., the U.K., France, Colombia, the Philippines—politics are getting more caustic, not less. In this kind of environment, all the media outlets that now rely on Facebook’s audience are driven to flood us with click-worthy headlines that play to our fears and anger. Every trend line points to more of what we’re growing to hate on Facebook.
The perverse incentives created by Facebook’s dominance and algorithms cannot be overstated. At peak times, when I am actively promoting Semi-Partisan Politics during newsworthy events, up to 50 percent of total traffic can come from Facebook alone, some days even more. Other sites have an even greater dependency on Facebook as a source of traffic.
And for media professionals, with this dependency on Facebook comes the temptation to generate extra precious pageviews by pushing the boundaries of acceptable journalistic practice, whether as a ploy to increase web ad revenue or merely for the supposed prestige of more clicks. All other ways of generating extra traffic – like, say, producing better content – are far more arduous and time intensive than simply being a bit more provocative on Facebook. And the returns are nowhere near as good. It would take a media organisation of exceptional poise and integrity to withstand these temptations. And as we know, there are few publications where the words “poise” or “integrity” come naturally as descriptors.
Compounding the problem is the fact that this Facebook traffic is both fickle and disloyal. One can win the passing attention of their eyeballs for a few brief passing seconds with a catchy headline (and often a provocative picture), but the moment your articles stop appearing in the Facebook feed, the vast majority of users will not go seek you out independently as a publisher of content – as a publisher, you are utterly replaceable by the swarm of other sites churning out often superficially similar-looking stuff.
This leads to an arms race of hysteria in terms of online political coverage, with some of those outlets now shouting loudest about pro-Trump “fake news” being themselves the worst offenders. Many of the headlines or Facebook post descriptions published by left-leaning sites like Huffington Post or MotherJones sound like the breathless, hysterical reactions of a high school student as opposed to sober, reasoned analysis, and of course the same goes for the likes of Breitbart on the right. Every utterance by Donald Trump is “scary”, every pronouncement by Hillary Clinton a “threat to America” – and these people dare to accuse others of generating a toxic climate for political discourse.
Chiu goes on to ponder the implications for Facebook:
Despite recent statements by Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg about his efforts to rein in fake news, he won’t be able to do that easily. Zuckerberg hit on the reason when he said it would be problematic to set up Facebook editors or algorithms as “arbiters of truth.” Because—what’s truth? Centuries ago, it was true that the world was flat. When I was a kid, a mom would sit in a car’s front seat and put her baby on her lap and not wear a seat belt. If someone said that was insanely unsafe, you probably would’ve blinked quizzically and said, “That’s not true.”
Facebook apparently is working on software that would flag or block fake news. Last year, Google published research on a knowledge-based trust algorithm that would sort for truth. Some college kids recently got attention for creating a Google Chrome extension they called FiB that automatically labels allegedly iffy sources. British technologist Peter Cochrane recently talked to me about developing software he called a truth engine. These might succeed in banning certain sites or identifying stories likely to be fake because they come from a single source, and yet software solutions can probably never overcome the problem that truth to me might not be truth to you, and truth today won’t necessarily be truth tomorrow.
[..] One constant about the technology industry is that every seemingly bulletproof superpower at some point has a Waterloo. It happened to IBM, AOL, Microsoft, Intel; and it will happen to Apple, Amazon and Google. You might be witnessing Facebook’s moment of truth, in a very literal sense. If Facebook turns into a bottomless cesspool of competing political “truths,” a lot of us are going to soil ourselves and escape to something else.
Frankly, I am a lot less worried about the future of Facebook than I am about the future of political journalism. In Britain, the EU referendum and surprise Brexit vote exposed the mainstream media as horribly glib, superficial, biased and lacking in basic understanding of the topics that they were covering. While the shining ones in Westminster write their articles in prestige publications or pontificate in the TV news studios, one frequently has to turn to the independent political blogosphere – largely strangled in its crib by the big media companies over the course of a decade – for anything approaching serious, granular analysis.
Yet many of these writers are unpaid, doing what they do as a labour of love rather than as a viable career. Many of them could vastly increase their audiences by adopting the same clickbait tactics as practiced by the likes of Buzzfeed, HuffPo or InfoWars. From a medium term career perspective, the best thing that many of these writers and journalists could do for themselves would be to sell out, start trotting out establishment talking points wrapped up in the kind of hysterical catastrophisation which prospers under the Facebook algorithms.
The problem is partly one of human nature: there will always be a much bigger market for sensationalist partisan fluff than serious, sober analyis. But also important is the fact that there is not a neat dividing line between real news and “fake news”. Fake news can incorporate false facts, but also correct facts which have been deliberately misinterpreted or spun. And far more insidious than any one fake news story, no matter how egregious, is the way in which language is often used to subtly change public perceptions over time – note how we now speak about “undocumented” rather than “illegal ” immigrants, a change adopted by nearly all of the mainstream media in America, and now in Britain too.
When the media is secretly complicit in ideologically-driven agendas, trust in the more reputable media is rightly weakened. But this leaves people more vulnerable to peddlers of deliberately fake news, as they search for alternatives. The obvious answer is for mainstream prestige outlets to rediscover their integrity and stop forcing readers away with ideologically skewed coverage, but they will not desist, and so they fuel the exodus of readers away to the fringes of the internet, a place where the more outrageous a story sounds, the more people will read it.
We present this as a crisis of technology – or at least those who work for mainstream publications, unwilling to examine their own culpability, present it that way. If only Facebook could stop people falling prey to the great evil of fake news, they cry in anguish, utterly ignoring the role that they themselves play in driving people toward fake news.
But this is not a crisis of technology. It is a crisis of human integrity, and the prestige mainstream media need to examine their own consciences long and hard before finding fault in other people.
Top Image: Facebook
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