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Both my friends in media and at Facebook are wrong about aspects of the post-election fake-news firestorm. Each is refusing to admit its own culpability and as a result they are missing the opportunity to work together and improve the situation.
Is Facebook to blame for electing Trump? No. Is Facebook clear of responsibility? No. Are media free of responsibility for what happens on Facebook? No. Can they cure the situation? No. Can they improve it? Yes.
Let me get this out of the way first: There is fake news in mainstream media, too. The campaign surrogates on cable news spewed gallons of fakery and the networks hired them to do it. I will argue that The New York Times email story against Hillary Clinton was fake news — and certainly its use to feed false balance against each of Trump’s sins was faked. So was the AP story and tweet about her foundation. But you may take what I say with a grain of salt because I am a liberal and a Clinton partisan — just as Trump voters and the right take The Times, The Post, CNN, and the rest of MSM with a salt lick: as fake. So be careful before you decide that whatever anyone could call fake should be banned.
Beware then what you wish for Facebook to do with fake news. Do we really want to set up Facebook or Google as the censors of the world? Do we want them to decide what is real and fake, true and false? Do we want to imagine Mark Zuckerberg staying up all night because someone is wrong on the internet — err, on Facebook? Of course, we don’t. Zuckerberg doesn’t want that either.
Did we learn nothing about bad information from dealing with junk rising in Google search results? The clear lesson there is that it’s impossible to play Whac-A-Mole with wrong information online. The censorious and offensive-to-free-speech-and-history European “right to be forgotten” aside, bad information cannot be stomped out. The solution, we’ve long since learned, is to flood the zone with good information. Entire companies are built with this mission; shouldn’t journalism share it?
What media should be doing in response to fake news is to bring journalism to the conversations that are already occurring on Facebook, Twitter, and elsewhere. I argued here that we in liberal media — let’s admit it: we are liberal — left a void serving conservatives (who don’t trust us) that was filled in by movements masquerading as media: Breitbart and its ilk, manufacturing mountains of fake news. I also argued that we in media left the platform of social media and the device of the meme to the fake-news factories.
Instead of complaining that Facebook doesn’t send enough traffic to our 1,000-word articles that countless lost customers have demonstrated they don’t want to read, we should be going to the social platforms, speaking the language there, respecting their context, and using the devices they provide — memes, video, photos, dancing GIFs if that’s what it takes — to bring journalistic value to the conversations that now occur without us.
Instead of mourning the creation of fake-news memes and putting the onus on Facebook to kill them (again: do we really want that?) we should be pouring out our own truth memes — with facts, fact-checking, context, explanation, education, reporting, watch-dogging: journalism, in short. We should be arming fair-minded, intelligent, curious, rational, fact-loving citizens (if you don’t think they exist, then give up on democracy and journalism, too) with the weapons, the truth bullets, to fire at will in their conversations. They won’t win all the wars but they will win some fact battles alongside us if only we enable them.
We in media won’t get there until and unless we take responsibility for informing the public where the public is and for our responsibility in creating the vacuums exploited by the fake news factories.
Now to Facebook: It, too, must accept responsibility. I have defended Zuckerberg’s contention that Facebook is not a media company (even if media think he steals their audience, attention, and ad dollars). Facebook is something new: a connection machine. I’ve agreed with him that Facebook is not to blame for Trump’s election (media are more to blame). But Facebook is not blameless. And to argue, as Zuckerberg did, that “of all the content on Facebook, more than 99% of what people see is authentic — only a very small amount is fake news and hoaxes,” is glib and unhelpful.
Facebook, too, has a problem. It can do much to improve what people read and share there — to create not just a better experience but a better society. It should work with media to do that. I’ve already made this suggestion: Facebook has the means to show related content and with that it can show related fact-checking and debunking from reliable media sources. Imagine if, as you get ready to share that meme about Pope Francis endorsing Donald Trump, Facebook says: “Hey, here’s something you might want to see from a news organization showing this is not true.” We in media need to not only enter into conversations ourselves but also feed Facebook signals of credibility and authority. Of course, some will still willfully lie. If we give the rest no alternative, they will do so by default.
Note well that in both cases — media and Facebook — I’m suggesting that we inform and empower the users, the citizens, the public to share smarter, more factual, more rational and reasonable information. That is what journalism is supposed to do and that is what Facebook wants to do. Instead of concentrating on killing the bad, enable the good and empower the user.
To make this happen, I’ll suggest once more that Facebook hire an editor of rank not to create content, not to edit, and not just to do deals but to bring a sense of public responsibility to Facebook; to explain journalism to Facebook and Facebook to journalism; to collaborate with editors; to have a positive impact on the product and the users’ experience and in the long-run society.
As a media company, I would assign social journalists to work on Facebook, Twitter, et al not to promote my own damned stories but to find what people are curious, wrong, and confused about and to bring them journalism.
We are concentrating on the wrong end of this. There will always be fake news, lies, and politicians and they will go together. It’s our job to make true news and nurture it.