To our thinking, it’s a matter of championing a healthy democratic process. To the managers of giant social media companies, most notably Facebook and Twitter, you would think it’s about, if nothing else, protecting a healthy cash cow.
Either way, social media companies can and should do much more to rid their services of malicious fake news sites, haters and trolls. A fetid stream of such garbage diluted the quality of honest debate in the presidential election just ended. Bad for democracy. How long will folks want to post cute cat videos and vacation photos on a social media site that sinks into a swamp of deceit? Bad for business.
This is not a matter of censorship — let’s be clear about that. Censorship is a function of government, and government has no business regulating the content of social media, the real or the fake. Bad free speech is still free speech. We have heard calls for congressional hearings into fake news sites — a horrible idea.
But we would hope social media companies are motivated by sheer self-interest to clean up their act. And, if nothing else, we would hope that many of us learned a big lesson during this election about the danger of fake news and have become more sophisticated consumers of information in the new media age. We should all question much more what we read and hear. Where are the hard facts? Who says?
In the last three months of the presidential election campaign, fake news headlines were more popular online — more widely read and shared — than real news headlines, reports BuzzFeed News. The 20 top-performing false election stories generated 8,711,000 Facebook shares, reactions and comments.
And what was the impact of such nonsense “news”? Hard to say, but it sure is troubling that millions of people saw and often shared the news — the utterly fake news — that Pope Francis had endorsed Donald Trump. Or believed the equally fake news that Michelle Obama had deleted old tweets from Hillary Clinton in an effort to cover up wrongdoing. The Pew Research Center says 62 percent of U.S. adults turn to social media for some of their news.
Facebook and Google last week took timid but necessary steps to discourage fake news by saying they would not steer ads — and revenue — to online sites set up strictly to disseminate phony news. That should discourage those who pollute social media with falsehoods merely to make money. But a bigger effort is necessary if social media service don’t want their industry to become an untrusted swamp of misinformation. It’s similar to the worthy battle Twitter and other sites are waging to keep trolls and bullies from dominating their services and driving others away. In a post on Friday night, Facebook Chairman and Chief Executive Mark Zuckerberg described ways the company is considering to deal with the problem.
Money is the driving force behind many fake-news sites. In an interview with the Washington Post, fake-news writer Paul Horner said he has made a living for several years by generating viral news hoaxes, such as reporting President Barack Obama banned the playing of the national anthem at sports events. He said Donald Trump’s son Eric and Corey Lewandowski, who was then Trump’s campaign manager, tweeted links to a bogus story he created that said a protester at a Trump rally had been paid $3,500.
The more clicks a fake story generates, the more money its creator can collect through online ads. Horner said he rakes in about $10,000 a month. And the more posts that go viral, the more money Facebook also makes.
Fake-news sites can thrive because the internet has given people access to such a broad swath of news sources that they no longer discount news sources just because they never heard of them. How many people know there is no such thing as the Denver Guardian, a pretend “newspaper” that on Nov. 5 posted a widely shared, and fictitious, headline saying an FBI agent suspected in Hillary Clinton’s “email leaks” had been found dead in an apparent murder-suicide.
Facebook and Google are reluctant to be seen as gatekeepers that favor or repress certain types of news. We appreciate that. No one wants arbitrarily imposed blacklists. But both social media services already promote some news stories over others. On Facebook, attention-grabbing headlines — even if they aren’t true — can show up in feeds more frequently than sober, fact-checked reporting. Moreover, Facebook has highlighted bogus information in its algorithm-driven Trending box, amplifying false news. On Google, a bogus report that Trump had won the popular vote topped its election search results.
Even if fake news can be corralled by starving it of revenue, some users continue will post misinformation for political, propaganda or other motivations. False and inaccurate information, then, will always be problem — as it always has been in the media. It is inevitable in a democracy in which protections of free speech must comes first.
No matter what the tech companies do, then, Americans owe it to themselves to become smarter consumers of information. Take nothing at face value, even the stuff you’d just love to believe. Check it out and consider the source.
As President Barack Obama said on Thursday, “If we are not serious about facts and what’s true and what’s not … if we can’t discriminate between serious arguments and propaganda, then we have problems.”
Maybe the cure begins with common sense:
Would the pope really make an endorsement in an American presidential election?Tweets by @csteditorials