Don’t like fake news? Then fight it.

What all of us can do to uphold truth on social media

Some good old fashioned Great War propaganda.

Dissecting the fake news phenomenon, host and math blogger Cathy O’Neil offered a high estimation of Facebook users’ discerning taste on a recent episode of the Slate Money podcast.

The moment arose over a firmly established flaw in Facebook’s news feed algorithm — namely, that it is heavily skewed toward sensational and outrageous news headlines over nuanced, responsible journalism.

She makes an astute assessment of the centrality of Facebook’s algorithm to the issue at hand. But Ms. O’Neil coolly offers a brash assumption about the reading public which should give listeners pause:

Facebook would argue that they are giving people what they want, using the proxy of what they click on, what they engage in and what they share, to define what they want. This is a pretty bad proxy of what people actually want in the long term.
People actually, probably want to read news they trust from a trusted news source, but what they actually click on are pictures of Kim Kardashian and listicles. That skew propagates, creating the news world in their own image. Their choice of poor proxy in determining what people actually want is creating these negative effects.

Such a sweeping and generous assumption of Facebook’s user base is disconcerting from the well-informed and skeptical O’Neil. Her erring calls to mind the cautionary wisdom of one vocal American cultural critic from a simpler time: modernist 20th century poet Ezra Pound.

Modernist poet Ezra Pound dreamed of an American renaissance.

Writing in the opening decades of the century, Pound held the publishing establishment of his day to unforgiving account. He made no effort to hide his contemptuous attitude toward the American reading public and any editor he deemed to be bowing to the public taste.

One particular letter to the Assistant Editor of a popular newspaper outlet illustrates Pound’s incredulity :

I think you have done too much harm…from year to year pouring poison into or onto the enfeebled or adolescent American mind.
I have no proof that you EVER make the faintest effort to understand anything whatever outside your own set of fixed ideas and conveniences…You accept the worst infamies of American imbecility and superstitions without a murmur, or without any persistent effort to clean up the mess.
An illustrated advertisement for Harper’s Bazaar.

This in an era when printed media was unchallenged by television or the internet, let alone social media. When writers like Hemingway and Fitzgerald still adorned the pages of popular magazines, Pound lamented the lowest common denominator of public taste. If poets like him felt they’d have to talk down the American reading public in the opening years of the 20th century, what would make us think public taste has at all approved in the opening years of the 21st?

In 1913, Pound asked “If one is going to print opinions that the public already agrees with, what is the use of printing ’em at all?” In 2016, the answer is apparently $10,000 a month in ad revenues and the chance to influence a tightly contested national election.

Before the segment on Slate Money ends, the pundits concluded by considering how the fake news epidemic might be addressed, either by Facebook or by some sort of government regulation reminiscent of the regulations originally placed on TV broadcasters. While both of these avenues are completely valid, the show’s statistically-minded wonks overlook something much more obvious and immediate.

Social media is inherently social. All who participate bear an individual share of collective responsibility for a system that is based solely on our, the users’, behavior. We can point fingers and bemoan the powers that be, but are each of us doing our part?

If each member of the reading public can come to terms with the faults of Facebook and the poisons that system produces, why can we not chose to boycott, or consciously act to change that system? Why should we wait for Facebook or some vague prevailing authority to correct a system over which we, the users, have ultimate control?

Pound was instrumental in the infamous “Ulysses” edition of The Little Review.

We can look to Ezra Pound for example. In 1914, the poet helped Margaret Anderson found The Little Review, striving toward the highest standards for published fare. Goaded by Pound, Anderson’s periodical promised content “Making No Compromise With the Public Taste.” (Just imagine this motto adorning the masthead of NowThis, Mic or Buzzfeed.)

The Little Review lived up to its promise, publishing James Joyce’s confoundingly complex (and allegedly obscene) Ulysses — now ranked among the highest literary achievements in the entire English language.

A few years later, Pound solicited fellow lovers of the arts and letters to crowd-fund excellent literature in his ill-fated Bel Espit scheme. Moved by the financial situation of the talented but constrained T.S. Eliot, Pound made a rousing call for direct support of passionate readers in order to produce content of the highest caliber. “No use waiting for masses to develop a finer taste,” he stated plainly in his circular for the scheme, “they aren’t moving that way.”

A few things each of us can do to make the internet a healthier place

  1. Don’t rely on Facebook alone to stay informed
    This was our first collective mistake, but it’s the most easily corrected. There are plenty of apps you can rely on to find and receive news and commentary from sources you trust (Feedly is just one example). In addition to removing the bias of public taste, most of these companies are out to help honest publications earn revenue online, not wring them for ad-dollars.
  2. Wield your likes critically, and with extreme prejudice
    If a link looks like click-bait, RESIST ALL URGE to click it. If information is outright false or offensive, report it. If a headline is misleading or baiting, or does not in any way meet the standards you set for your digital discourse, your most powerful act is to ignore it. Platforms like Facebook reward likes, comments and shares with wider circulation, begetting an endless cycle of engagement and social spreading. Your refusal is your most powerful vote for the content you want. In the same vein, when something is worthy, take it as your solemn duty to engage and share.
  3. Take your editorial responsibility seriously
    On social media, we are all editors of our own virtual outlets, large and small. It may not sound appealing to post hard-hitting news or insightful analysis to Facebook when a photo of your dog would win you so much more affirmation. But every one us bears collective responsibility to consider how what we circulate may either elevate or sink the quality of online conversation. Social media is only what we make of it. If we’re disappointed at the result, we need only look in the mirror to see the source of the problem — and the starting point for change.