When Facts Died
When an unknown Texan tweeted about paid protesters being bussed to rallies denouncing President-elect Trump, it soon sparked a nationwide scandal. More than 350,000 shares on Facebook and 16,000 on Twitter later, it soon became clear the allegations were completely false. Have we created a post-truth society where falsehoods rapidly gain a life of their own?
Social media was once heralded as the saviour of free speech, a revolutionary force that would challenge the press and give the masses a voice. Facebook and Twitter have indeed shaken the mainstream media. News publishers no longer have control over the distribution of their journalism, with the majority of Americans now saying they get news via social media. Journalism has been altered beyond belief.
What was not understood at the dawn of the social media age was the way it would shake politics. Initial predictions focused on the revolutionary power of these platforms. Barack Obama was praised for reaching out to the grassroots through social media. The Arab Spring was renamed the “Twitter revolution”. Yet in 2016 the dark side of this phenomenon has become clearer. Panic has spread over the flourishing of fake news sites, a network of media outlets publishing hoaxes and lies. These include a website called the Denver Guardian which published stories calling Clinton a murderer, as well as a cluster of pro-Trump sites founded by teenagers in Macedonia, motivated only by the advertising revenue they can earn if enough people click on their links.
It is impossible to tell how much this phenomenon impacted upon the election result. But it is clear that fake news is powerful. On Facebook, all the posts look the same — a New York Times investigation sits next to a think piece about Hillary Clinton’s hidden Parkinson’s diagnosis, allowing rumour and lie to masquerade as legitimate news. Analysis by Buzzfeed has shown that fake news actually outperformed real news on Facebook, with more shares, comments and reactions than legitimate news sites.
After a shock election result, these sites were thrust into the spotlight. The very politicians who embraced social media as a campaign strategy have come to fear its dark side. Obama is said to be ‘obsessed’ with the phenomenon, condemning the new media landscape in which ‘everything is true and nothing is true’. Pundits are baying for blood, demanding that social media be held accountable for allowing these stories to spread.
But can social media really put a stop to post-truth politics? Facebook’s founder Mark Zuckerberg, having initially denied that fake news was problematic, has said Facebook would experiment with warning labels on stories, and try to better screen the quality of links. Google has suggested it will prevent these sites from accessing advertising revenue. Yet these responses have been lukewarm. Last week, Zuckerberg called the problem ‘complex, both technically and philosophically’ and said the company erred ‘on the side of letting people share what they want whenever possible’.
Facebook is uneasy over its increasingly dominant role in the news media. This caution is understandable. If Facebook abandons its stance as a neutral technology platform it risks reinforcing the very conspiracy theories it is attempting to dismantle. For many, a messy free-for-all might be preferable to a newsfeed carefully curated by Facebook. When it comes to satire and opinion, the lines between fact and fiction are sometimes blurry. If Facebook were to appoint themselves as official arbiters of the truth, the move would act as proof for many that big business and the media go hand in hand, legitimising a further retreat into partisan ideological bubbles as paranoia about the ‘mainstream media’ grows even stronger.
Social media may have changed the shape of modern politics, but it cannot turn back the clock. Even if the platforms succeed in the difficult task of clamping down on fake news sites, the incentive for legitimate outlets to remain truthful is rapidly diminishing. It has been shown that the more extreme the emotion in a headline, the more likely it is to be clicked on. For as long as Facebook optimises for engagement, legitimate news websites have little reason to be balanced.
With 1.7 billion users, the incentive for news organisations to tailor their work to the demands of this new medium are enormous. Real news is learning from fake news, with dangerous results.
The more we click and share content that resonates with our own world views the more Facebook provides us with similar posts. Social media may have opened up a Pandora’s box of disinformation, but the problem at its heart lies with human psychology. Lies that align with our prejudices are more easily believed. Social media has, as predicted, triggered a revolution in how we access information, placing the power in the people’s hands. Yet this power comes with responsibilities. Fake news gets its power from the numbers who share it. If Facebook is unwilling and unable to filter for fact, the readers themselves must take up the mantle.