Facebook chief executive Mark Zuckerberg defended his company on Thursday by saying that it’s a “crazy idea” to think that fake news on the social network helped elect Donald Trump to the White House.
It was a remark aimed at criticism that the social media network, one of the most widely used in the United States, has aided in the spread of fake news through its algorithms that run the Trending box, and in showing what posts show up on a user’s feed.
“I do think that there is a certain profound lack of empathy in asserting that the only reason why someone could have voted the way that they did as because they saw some fake news,” Mr. Zuckerberg said, as reported by Recode. “I think if you believe that, then I don’t think you have internalized the message that Trump supporters are trying to send in this election.”
But critics point out that the fake news stories – on both sides – could have played a role in steering voters toward an inaccurate and polarizing picture of the country, affecting their decisions at the poll and contributing to misunderstandings. Deciding what should and should not show up in social media, however, is a tricky job that runs the risk of editorializing – yet the burden will increasingly fall on technology companies like Facebook, as social media becomes a major source of news for Americans.
“For all [Facebook's] wonders ... it’s also become a single point of failure for civic information,” Joshua Benton, the director of the Nieman Journalism Lab at Harvard University, wrote on Wednesday. “Our democracy has a lot of problems, but there are few things that could impact it for the better more than Facebook starting to care – really care – about the truthfulness of the news that its users share and take in.”
The organizations and users creating fake content vary widely, as do their stories: from the fake, trending Facebook story about Fox News host Megyn Kelly being fired and supporting Hillary Clinton; to stories falsely claiming that Mrs. Clinton had called for civil war if Trump won, or that Pope Francis had endorsed Trump; to even a made-up stories suggesting the Clintons had murdered someone.
All this occurred as Facebook was under fire after it fired its Trending section editors, amid accusations that they had censored conservative news stories, leaving an algorithm to filter out misleading information.
But the company hasn't been able to defeat popular posts that trick the algorithm into displaying them prominently. Some users hungry for ad money are taking advantage of that weakness to create hundreds of fake websites to push false news on Facebook , as revealed by investigations from Buzzfeed and The Guardian. A group of teenagers in Macedonia told Buzzfeed they did it for the money, publishing stories that claimed Mike Pence said Michelle Obama was "the most vulgar first lady we’ve ever had" and that Clinton would be indicted for the email scandal, for instance.
Other social media companies, like Twitter, also had to deal with tweets spreading misinformation, such as false rules about voting procedures. Google went a step further to address this problem by adding a “fact check” label in its news clusters, along with “opinion.” Back in 2014, Facebook tested labeling fake news stories with a “satire” tag.
Zuckerberg has repeatedly emphasized that Facebook is merely a tech company, not a media company in charge of determining content. But proliferation of false information on the platform may hurt its credibility, Adam Mosseri, the vice president of product management at the company, acknowledged in a statement to Tech Crunch on Thursday.
“In Trending we look at a variety of signals to help make sure the topics being shown are reflective of real-world events, and take additional steps to prevent false or misleading content from appearing,” Mr. Mosseri wrote. “Despite these efforts we understand there’s so much more we need to do, and that is why it’s important that we keep improving our ability to detect misinformation.”