Who Fake News Harms: An Open Letter to Mark Zuckerberg

(Obligatory disclaimer: the following contains my personal opinions. These opinions are mine alone and do not necessarily reflect the views of my employer.)

Hi Mark. We need to talk.

In recent days you’ve said: “I think the idea that fake news on Facebook — of which it’s a very small amount of the content — influenced the election in any way is a pretty crazy idea.” And written that, “more than 99% of what people see [on Facebook] is authentic. Only a very small amount is fake news and hoaxes.”

All due respect, but I think perhaps you’re underestimating the size of this problem and who is being harmed by it.

As BuzzFeed recently reported (before the election; and after the election), networks of sites pushing fake news were able to generate much more traffic on Facebook than many mainstream news outlets.

You’ve (to your credit) recognized that it’s an issue, and that there is more that can be done.

I’m glad to hear you’re taking this problem seriously because the spread of mis-information harms us all, particularly when the stakes are this high.

But I’m also genuinely concerned that you’re being played by a bunch of kids in Macedonia — elevating their fake news over the work of hard-working professional journalists doing serious reporting. These same journalists are trying to get the word out about that reporting through your platform and finding their voices drowned out by the noise.

Let me introduce you to some of the organizations this spread of mis-information works most strongly against.

In my work at the Institute for Nonprofit News, I’ve had the fortune to get to know and work with many of our 120+ member organizations, all of which are nonprofit, nonpartisan organizations committed to donor transparency.

Some of these organizations are doing well (relatively speaking) while others remain very fragile and under-funded, doing their best to fill the gap left by mainstream media that has so often turned to celebrity pundits and horserace coverage over serious investigative work. All of them are filling a vital need in the communities they serve.

There are established national organizations like ProPublica, the Center for Investigative Reporting and the Center for Public Integrity working to ensure that our government works for all of its citizens and those in power are held accountable.

There are organizations working at the state level like the Texas Tribune, Mississippi Today, New Mexico In-Depth, the Kentucky Center for Investigative Reporting and many others bringing the same level of accountability to state government.

Some are focused on covering important topics that are often neglected by the mainstream press such as race and poverty (Chicago Reporter), food and climate (Food and Environment Reporting Network) or criminal justice (The Marshall Project).

While still others are working at a local level to improve their communities: The Lens in New Orleans, Charlottesville Tomorrow in Charlottesville, Virginia or one of our smallest members, the one-person strong Aspen Journalism in Aspen, Colorado.

What do all of these organizations have in common? At least two things I can think of:

  1. They all work to create fact-based, serious reporting of consequence to the people and communities they serve.
  2. They use Facebook.

They all know that Facebook has the tremendous potential to help them reach audiences for their work, convene discussions of critical issues and improve their communities.

But small organizations like these don’t stand a chance when they are drowned out by torrents of fake news that spreads like wildfire on your platform. Their work needs to stand out. It deserves to stand out. But instead it looks just the same in the newsfeed as any of these fake articles. And that’s on you to fix.

I get that you don’t want to take too firm a hand here, but it’s easy enough to identify news that comes from reputable sources and at least start there.

Fixing this is also good for business because it helps your users. In the wake of the election, many are demanding more diverse voices in the media and they are clamoring for more serious reporting. Facebook is in a perfect position to help them find it by elevating these trustworthy sources that often go unheard and unseen. These smaller organizations have a hard enough time breaking through the noise of the mainstream media, please don’t force them to also compete with the viral spread of these fake stories that play all too well to peoples’ emotions, and often, their fear.

Finally, I would also encourage you to put your money where your mouth is. There is, in fact, more that YOU personally can do to support this work.

This week I am donating a few bucks to each and every one of our member organizations. I will stand with them to support the important work they’re doing for their communities and I would encourage you to do the same.

By the time I’ve donated to all of these organizations, I’ll have given about 1% of my income this year to support serious, fact-based journalism.

Now, 1% of my income is not much, Mark. But even that small amount makes a difference.

Imagine the impact you could have if you pledged your 1%.

I hope you’ll consider it. Here’s a handy list of organizations to help you get started.