Fake News and Facebook

A lot of ink has been spilled over the last week over fake news on Facebook and how it may (or may not) have swung the election. One tragedy of this conversation is that it didn’t happen earlier— it shouldn’t take an election to get people talking about issues this important to our future. But whatever, better late than never.

So what’s the problem? Why is fake news bad? People believe all sorts of untrue things, and they always have. That’s not new. It’s dangerous, though, when people make choices with real-world impact based on those false beliefs. People with the same information can come to different conclusions (great!) but if we make those decisions based on false beliefs, we might have a problem.

Again, this has always been true — it’s not like the internet created falsehood — but the internet magnifies many things, good and bad. It democratizes propaganda and empowers it in novel ways. It makes it much easier for us to find like-minded people, no matter where they are — and avoid different points of view. And it makes it possible for would-be leaders to manipulate those trends for their own gain (see Trump).

Now, let’s get this out of the way: I think this is a big issue, but I’m not sure it swung the election in Trump’s favor. There’s just not enough data to say for sure. But we should move on from that, because the result of the election is just a symptom. It’s a side-effect of a broader problem that will only get worse in the future unless something is done about it.

A lot of people are arguing that it’s Facebook’s job to fix this problem. In FB’s case, that might mean changing the newsfeed algorithm to filter out fake news. Others are saying that Facebook shouldn’t do that, because then you have the problem of deciding who gets to pick which stories should be censored and which don’t. And sure, that could be disproportionately bad for certain groups.

For the record, I’m tentatively in the first camp while admitting that there’s no way something like tweaking the FB news feed will be sufficient to fix this problem.

I do have two thoughts here though:

  1. Freedom of Speech is super important, but don’t make the mistake of thinking that it’s all-important just because it’s the first amendment or whatever. There might be more important things to worry about that trump (no pun intended) our right to free speech. For example, you can’t claim First Amendment protection when you get on a plane and loudly threaten to blow it up. We as a society have decided that safety is sometimes more important than your right to say whatever you want whenever and wherever you want. I think there’s an argument to be made that widespread fake-news-style misinformation is worse for society than people threatening to blow up planes.
  2. Lots of the pieces I’ve read online are creating false equivalencies between different kinds of fake news. These people argue that fighting fake news is an all-or-nothing proposition, that you can’t just fight some of it — you have to eliminate all of it. And of course, someone would have to decide the edge cases, and wherever that happens you’re probably creating bias against certain groups. This is bullshit. What’s preventing us from stopping the really blatant stuff and leaving more ambiguous stuff alone? Like, an article claiming as fact that Hillary Clinton is a murderer is very different from an article arguing that she’s bad for the country. Democrats might disagree with the second one, but it’s not obviously “fake.” The first one has no place in our political discourse and I don’t feel bad about suppressing it or at least marking it Fake News.

Bottom line: I don’t have a solution here, but it’s important that we think deeply about this in the coming months and years. It’s not going away.

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