In 2015, the Pew Research Center published a study about where most Americans get their news – it found that among Millennials and Gen. Xers, a majority use Facebook as their primary source for news. 61% of Millennials and 51% of Gen. Xers said that they used the social network more than any other site or source for their information, edging out all the major networks and newspapers. Among Baby Boomers, 39% use Facebook regularly as a source of information. This growing use of Facebook for news has had some interesting side effects.
Most conventional news organizations curate their content sectionally; you have your international news, sports, business, entertainment, etc. Each of those sections has someone in charge who chooses what to publish and when. Further, the organization assumes responsibility for the truth of that information. So, for example, when CNN reported that there were up to four Dallas shooters, they were responsible for correcting that information when it became clear there was only one.
Facebook, however, is not a news organization. It does not prioritize its trending content or fact check any of it. In an article about Facebook’s trending methodology, Kurt Wagner of Recode wrote:
“Facebook shows you things in your Trending line-up the same way it shows you things in your News Feed: Algorithms. It takes into account a few personal things, like where you live and what Pages you follow. But primarily it looks for two broader signals: Topics that are being mentioned a lot and topics that receive a dramatic spike in mentions.”
This means that, regardless of the quality of the content, clicks equals representation on Facebook. The more people look at something, the more Facebook prompts other people to look at that same link. This is where the lack of curation becomes a problem – in the last two months of the recent election; fake news overtook the real stuff by a margin of over a million engagements. (An engagement is a click, share, comment or reaction) This means that a large percentage of the American voter base was reading untrue news stories as their primary source of information about the election.
But why so much fake news? It turns out, fake news is more profitable than the real thing. In an investigation, Buzzfeed found that 100 sites publishing fake news stories (such classics as Clinton endorsing Trump for President or Clinton’s indictment set to begin before the election) were being run out a single town in Macedonia. They were generating hundreds of thousands of engagements per article, and the corresponding ad revenue. Without the burden of fact-based reporting, fake news sites just sling up whatever might get clicked on.
When Google CEO Sundar Pichai was asked if the proliferation of fake news during the final months of the election might have contributed to Donald Trump’s victory, he replied “Sure.” He’s not alone. The Buzzfeed study found that the top-performing stories were overwhelmingly pro-Trump or, at the very least, anti-Clinton. These spanned from allegations of Clinton supervising weapons sales to ISIS or that Pope Francis had announced his support for Donald Trump. In fact, the fake story about the Pope’s endorsement outperformed former CIA director Michael Morrell’s real endorsement of Clinton by 600,000 engagements.
Facebook and Google have both vowed to take measures preventing fake news in the future – but it remains to be seen if those policies will be effective. Even if they are, the internet remains fertile ground for the publication of whatever anyone feels like writing- and policing that will be impossible. People remain free to post whatever unsubstantiated garbage they want, and that’s how it should be.
What this actually comes down to is a need for a free and established press. The only problem is that we may never be able to trust them again after so many years of watching Fox News and MSNBC throw mud at each other.
Our dissatisfaction with the media of late has bred a desire to find news from ‘alternative sources.' It has led to an explosion of bullshit artists, bias-peddlers and straight up profiteers. This is the only time in modern history when such transparent ideological fronts as Breitbart and Jezebel could be counted as reliable sources. It is certainly the only time where a couple of industrious Macedonians could have influenced the course of a Presidential election. Is this the world we want to live in? Fake news and opinion news and slant news where everything has to shock, offend or blast some partisan line?
What happened to Edward R. Murrow, elegantly and calmly looking into the camera and delivering facts that had been checked? It’s possible that we have so screwed up the way we ingest media that it’s impossible to return to a point where we can trust a source again.
Which is a shame, because there are still outlets doing good, investigative and substantiated reporting. Publications like the New York Times, Washington Post and increasingly online publications like BuzzFeed and the Huffington Post. I want to live in a world where their good work still matters, and the information that they publish can actually influence public discourse.
So, I invite you to do a little experiment: click on the hyperlinks in the articles you read. Check the sources at the bottom of the article. Follow up with the publications you read if something doesn’t ring true. Ask them where they get their information. If they’re a publication worth trusting they’ll answer. If not, I’d think twice before sharing Pope Francis’s endorsement for anything.