Facebook part 2: the data and the denial

So it seems I was not alone in my hot take about Facebook’s responsibility in fanning the flames of hatred in this election by circulating false stories and creating echo chambers for politically like-minded users. Here are a few I found most interesting: 

First up, Sam Biddle at the Intercept took perhaps the most critical tone with a post titled “Facebook, I’m begging you, please make yourself better.” Says Mr Biddle: “confirmation bias doesn’t begin to describe what Facebook offers partisans in both directions: a limitless, on-demand narrative fix, occasionally punctuated by articles grounded in actual world events, when those suit their preferences. But it was the Trump camp more than its opponent that encouraged this social media story time, because theirs was a candidate who was willing to stand at a podium and recite things he knew to be false, day after day.” He was also harsh with Facebook’s motivation: “the cynical explanation here is the most plausible: People will click on and share things they want to believe are true, and the more this happens, all the better for Facebook’s share price. The extent to which Facebook rambles about algorithmic oversight and a commitment to neutrality is only a means of ditching responsibility.”

Second, Emily Bell at the Columbia Journalism Review took a more temperate position but still called Facebook out for being the main distributor of fake news that was hard to counter. “Facebook, now the most influential and powerful publisher in the world, is becoming the “I didn’t do it” boy of global media. Clinton supporters and Trump detractors are searching for reasons why a candidate who lied so frequently and so flagrantly could have made it to the highest office in the land. News organizations, particularly cable news, are shouldering part of the blame for failing to report these lies for what they were. But a largely hidden sphere of propagandistic pages that target and populate the outer reaches of political Facebook are arguably even more responsible.” Perhaps most interesting from the product perspective is her comment that “the quality of journalism (or even the veracity of information) does not guarantee financial success. Fake news and real news are not different types of news; they are completely different categories of activity. But in Facebook’s News Feed, they look the same.” It is also turned out to be very profitable to create these false stories “Ad sales are all automated, and based on demographic data. Publishers that generate those data for traffic are not rewarded for quality.”

She also quotes John Lloyd who “draws a clear parallel between the rise of the social Web and the migration away from truth by those who publish there. He links this shift in attention to the lower print readership and the decline of newspapers in physical form and their passing on to the internet puts them on all fours with the vast flows of information, fantasy, leaks, conspiracy theories, expressions of benevolence and hatred. There they have to live or die.”  And like I said on Wednesday, this leveling of the playing field is really not fair to the media organizations supporting large, expensive newsrooms. Finally, Ms Bell agrees that the first step for Facebook is admitting that there is a problem: “Until the company and Zuckerberg specifically acknowledge that this ecosystem is a problem, nothing will happen. The large numbers of policy people Facebook has working on issues such as extremist recruitment, hate speech, and terrorism are effectively already editing the platform. But the system for moderating the site’s content is largely obscure, the echo chambers concealed, and the fake news out of control.”

Third, Zeynep Tufekci, an academic studying the intersection of social media and politics wrote an op-ed in the New York Times back in March of this year on how she tried to understand “the power of the Trump social media echo chamber… It’s a world of wild falsehoods and some truth that you see only rarely in mainstream news outlets, or hear spoken among party elites.” Yesterday she compiled a few interesting sources that provided the numbers behind some of the claims every other post was making. She added: “Facebook’s algorithm is central to how news & information is consumed in the world today, and no historian will write about 2016 without it…2016 was a close election where filter bubbles & algorithmic funneling was weaponized for spreading misinformation.” Taking a harsher tone in her demands from Facebook and the other “tech” companies: it may seem trivial, but it’s my corner: tech companies should immediately go to end-to-end encryption and ponder alternative financial models. FB algorithms have clear bents: filter-bubble, clicky or quarrelsome content. It builds on human tendencies. It greatly amplifies them.” The “click-bait algorithms fuel misinformation.”

"People who believe Trump was sent by God will take anything on faith." Source: Daily Edge

“People who believe Trump was sent by God will take anything on faith.”
Source: Daily Edge

Finally, the denial. Yesterday at the Techonomy conference, Mark Zuckerberg said that the “small amount” of fake news that spread on Facebook did not influence the outcome. “To think it influenced the election in any way is a pretty crazy idea,” he said. He added that “There’s a profound lack of empathy in asserting that the only reason someone could’ve voted the way they did is because they saw fake news” which doesn’t really answer the evidence presented in the posts above. Adam Mosseri, Facebook’s vice president of product management, was a bit more conciliatory saying “we value authentic communication, and hear consistently from those who use Facebook that they prefer not to see misinformation. Despite Facebook’s efforts, we understand there’s so much more we need to do.”

No kidding.

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