With the US presidential elections right behind us, there’s been a lot of talk about the role platforms like Facebook and Twitter have in our modern discourse. Last week, it was revealed that teens in Macedonia earns thousands of dollars each month by posting patently false stories about the elections on Facebook and getting them to go viral. With Facebook being a major source of news for a lot of people, such false stories can certainly impact people’s voting behaviour.
In a statement to TechCrunch, Facebook responded to the criticism that the company isn’t doing enough to stop this kind of thing. The statement in full reads:
We take misinformation on Facebook very seriously. We value authentic communication, and hear consistently from those who use Facebook that they prefer not to see misinformation. In Newsfeed we use various signals based on community feedback to determine which posts are likely to contain inaccurate information, and reduce their distribution. In Trending we look at a variety of signals to help make sure the topics being shown are reflective of real-world events, and take additional steps to prevent false or misleading content from appearing. Despite these efforts we understand there’s so much more we need to do, and that is why it’s important that we keep improving our ability to detect misinformation. We’re committed to continuing to work on this issue and improve the experiences on our platform.
This is an incredibly complex issue.
First, Facebook is a private entity, and has no legal obligation to be the arbiter of truth, save for complying with court orders during, say, a defamation or libel lawsuit by a wronged party. If someone posts a false story that Clinton kicked a puppy or that Trump punched a kitten, but none of the parties involved take any steps, Facebook is under no obligation – other than perhaps one of morality – to remove or prevent such stories from being posted.
Second, what, exactly, is truth? While it’s easy to say that “the earth is flat” is false and misinformation, how do you classify stories of rape and sexual assault allegations levelled at a president-elect – and everything in between? What if you shove your false stories in a book, build a fancy building, slap a tax exempt status on it, and call it a religion? There’s countless “legitimate” ways in which people sell lies and nonsense to literally billions of people, and we deem that completely normal and acceptable. Where do you draw the line, and more importantly, who draws that line?
Third, how, exactly, do we propose handling these kinds of bans? Spreading news stories online is incredibly easy, and I doubt even Facebook itself could truly ‘stop’ a story from spreading on its platform. Is Facebook supposed to pass every post and comment through its own Department of Truth?
Fourth, isn’t spreading information – even false information – a basic human need that you can’t suppress? Each and every one of us spreads misinformation at one or more points in our lives – we gossip, we think we saw something, we misinterpreted someone’s actions, you name it. Sure, platforms like Facebook can potentially amplify said misinformation uncontrollably, but do we really want to put a blanket moratorium on “misinformation”, seeing as how difficult it it is to define the term?
We are only now coming to grips with the realities of social media elections, but as a politics nerd, I’d be remiss if I didn’t raise my hand and reminded you of an eerily similar situation the US political world found itself in in the aftermath of the 26 September, 1960 debate between sitting vice president Nixon and a relatively unknown senator from Massachusetts, John F. Kennedy.
It was the first televised debate in US history. While people who listened to the debate on the radio declared Nixon the winner, people who watched the debate on television declared Kennedy the winner. While Nixon appeared sickly and sweaty, Kennedy looked fresh, calm, and confident. The visual impact was massive, and it changed the course of the elections. Televised debates are completely normal now, and every presidential candidate needs to be prepared for them – but up until 1960, it wasn’t a factor at all.
Social media will be no different. Four years from now, when Tulsi Gabbard heads the Democratic ticket (you heard it here first – mark my words) versus incumbent Trump, both candidates will have a far better grasp on social media and how to use them than Clinton and Trump did this year.