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Facebook’s Fake News, Political Discourse, and the 2016 Election

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Facebook%E2%80%99s+fake+news+problem+influenced+%0Athe+2016+election.
Facebook’s fake news problem influenced 
the 2016 election.

Facebook’s fake news problem influenced the 2016 election.

Facebook’s fake news problem influenced the 2016 election.

Cecilia Ergueta, Columnist

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What happens when millions of Americans get their news from a single, private, social media company with no accountability for the truth of its content? Facebook’s unprecedented power in our country’s news consumption endangers the balanced and credible sharing of ideas and information in the USA, directly affecting the political division evident in our country, and influencing the results of the 2016 election.

Today, an informed person who keeps up with the news means something very different than it did even ten years ago; a recent Pew study determined that 44% of Americans read or watch news on Facebook. While network television and other news gathering agencies (including newspapers) have fallen well below 50% of all news traffic, Facebook has developed into a platform not only for connecting with friends, but for reading up on the news, centralizing online news consumption under the control of a private company that answers only to stockholders. Last year, Republicans were rightly scandalized by Facebook’s admittance that its “trending topics” list was in fact curated by a team of journalists, one of whom conceded that they were biased against conservative perspectives. “Considering that over 40% of people get their news from Facebook, I definitely understand why people would be upset about this; if you want to be a news source, you have a responsibility to represent both sides equally,” stated Izze Rios ’18. Due to its lack of transparency, we can only guess what else goes on in Facebook company meetings–and is finding its way into its algorithms!  When we convince ourselves that Facebook is an open, unbiased platform, we delude ourselves, and dangerously so; Facebook’s announced goals as a company are money and power, yet our society gives them the controls to the system by which Americans inform themselves and base their beliefs.

One phenomenon facilitated by Facebook in particular greatly endangers our public discourse: the rise of fake news sites. As traditional news platforms such as newspapers decline, political “news” and advocacy pages have sprung up on Facebook, created by often obscure individuals and groups to capitalize on Facebook’s algorithms by serving up “click-bait” that appeals to users’ emotions and prejudices, and which is then “liked” and shared in a snowballing fashion. Some of these pages produce nothing other than outrageous memes catering to the prejudices of political groups, particularly right-wing groups, feeding them outright lies as facts to arouse attention and engagement with their followers. For example, an investigation by Buzzfeed examined three major right-wing websites, determining that 38% of their posts were either false or a mixture of truth and falsehood.  Even more worrying, they found that the least accurate pages generated some of the highest numbers of shares, reactions, and comments on Facebook. “The rise of fake news sites speaks to people’s need for instant gratification- rather than doing the digging themselves, people let someone else tell them their version of reality” stated Jake Rashkind, English teacher. Such “services” have accumulated “follower” lists numbering in the millions of people, overshadowing major news companies such as the New York Times or CNN, and dominating political discourse, without the structure or ethical accountability of major news companies. “Fake news create a mindset for people based on falsehoods, changing the way they think about politics- that’s a huge problem!” stated Donovan Aldridge ’18. The people behind fake “news” pages’ vary; while some are partisan propagandists eager to influence public opinion, others are simply greedy entrepreneurs seeking to make money from high-traffic advertising, regardless of the consequences. But, as Rios ‘18 points out, “News pages are what the public relies on; when you see people like this just out to make a quick buck, it makes you think, “how can we trust what we see on our newsfeeds?’”

It is at this point hard to believe that fake “news” pages on Facebook did not affect the results of the recent election. Frank Bruni of The New York Times cited pre-election fake news articles, illustrating the absurdities their loyal fan bases avidly consumed and passed on to others: “You may not realize that our Kenyan-born Muslim president was plotting to serve a third term as our illegitimate president, by allowing Hillary Clinton to win and then indicting her; or that Pope Francis’ endorsement of Donald Trump helped avert election-rigging. You perhaps didn’t know that Clinton is a Satan worshiper at the center of an international child enslavement and sex ring.” Why this likely swayed the election is that this shameless political demonizing overwhelmingly favored the radical political right; though some entrepreneurs also tried to develop an audience on the radical left, Bernie Sanders supporters did not respond in large numbers. “The media had a vested interest in making this election as close as possible; they gave one candidate free publicity, while holding the other to a very high standard” stated Rashkind. “The sensationalist news not only kept people in their own silos, but dumbed down the dialogue, eliciting gut reactions.” Throughout the election season, millions of Americans consumed preposterous claims such as these on a daily basis; how can we believe these “news” pages did not help elect Donald Trump?

Following the election, Facebook has come under intense scrutiny over its facilitating “fake news”, and Mark Zuckerberg has scrambled to protect Facebook from blame. His defenses have ranged from denying that Facebook is a news/ media company, to questioning the effectiveness of fake news, to claiming that all Facebook users engage in confirmation bias anyway. While all these claims seem to make sense at first, they are simply not backed up by current evidence, and serve to obscure the longer-term problem of Facebook’s enormous influence over American political discourse, and the company’s lack of transparency or accountability. Zuckerberg probably knows too well the danger Facebook could face if scrutinized thoroughly. One hundred years ago, Rockefeller’s Standard Oil Co. had monopolized the oil industry, growing so powerful that the government was forced to take action and break it up  it. Mark Zuckerberg may know enough about US history to start casting a protective eye on his own company and its blooming monopoly power.

Clearly, something needs to be done. Never before has a private company wielded so much influence over the public discourse. But what to do?  Is is possible that Facebook could somehow solve this problem on its own, by abolishing false news pages, as it recently announced?  If not, what would it make sense for the government to do? Could it take over a moderated version of the “Newsfeed”? Could Facebook be broken up without killing it? Dealing with Facebook’s monopoly power in news distribution is a highly complex issue that cannot be handled the same way as past monopolies, but is nonetheless a crucial issue for us to start considering if we wish to preserve a healthy democracy.

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Facebook’s Fake News, Political Discourse, and the 2016 Election