Every day hundreds of millions of people turn to Facebook for their news. Each month roughly twenty per cent of humanity visits the site. This giant user base has made Facebook’s newsfeed, in the ten years since its launch, into the largest distributor of news on the planet. In September the company reported a staggering third quarter net income of $2.38b, a healthy increase over the US$896m earned over the same period last year. The bulk of these profits stem from advertising generated by users sharing news.
As profits soared, CEO Mark Zuckerberg proudly described Facebook as “the new town hall,” dispersing news about the forthcoming US election. Afterwards, however, as evidence of fake news stories that may have swayed significant numbers of voters began to emerge, the company grew defensive. Answering criticism about the site’s role in propagating rumours and conspiracy theories Zuckerberg said: “We don’t want to be the arbiters of truth ourselves” – describing the site merely as a platform that allows users to make up their own minds.
In May of this year, documents leaked to the Guardian showed that Facebook’s neutrality, its oft-repeated assertion that algorithms determine the content of the news feed, is largely a fiction. News editors constantly sift through the stories, blacklisting some – for such reasons as “doesn’t represent a real world event” – while helping other “newsworthy” ones to climb the ladder of trending topics. Responding to allegations that these human interventions seemed to be tilted against conservative views, the company’s VP of global operations said that Facebook did not “allow or advise our reviewers to systematically discriminate against sources of any political origin, period.”
These principled statements sound reassuring, but they may be wishful thinking. We may think of the Internet as a digital space governed by the norms of the US First Amendment, but Facebook, as a private company, has complete discretion over how it chooses to shape the flow of its content. While it tries to sound neutral, it can’t help being caught up in the complexities of real world politics. Last September, for instance, a hot mic caught German Chancellor Angela Merkel berating Mark Zuckerberg over inflammatory anti-immigrant posts that appeared on the site. Zuckerberg replied that “we need to do some work” on the issue; when Merkel countered, “Are you working on this?” he replied that he was. More disturbingly, news surfaced earlier this month that the company has been designing software that would help the Chinese government suppress politically sensitive social content. Zuckerberg has reportedly “supported and defended the effort.”
Of course, Facebook is hardly alone in its failure to defend its stated principles. Google – whose charmingly vague corporate motto is Don’t be Evil – has also found how hard it is to remain above the fray. Google’s tussles with the People’s Republic of China are well known, and it has learned a great deal about how difficult it can be to embrace transparency and free speech. In 2014, for instance, after Brazil’s painful 7-1 World Cup defeat by Germany, an NPR report suggested that Google chose not to show trending searches during the game – which established new records for social media commentary – in order to spare Brazilians from further humiliation. Google later questioned this characterization in a public statement, saying that “unlike your average 16-year-old, we don’t share every single thing we might have to say.” Shrewdly, it avoided explaining how adult supervision of its social channels actually worked.
Facebook recently launched an initiative to remove xenophobia and hate speech from its network. The ideals behind the campaign are laudable, in the abstract, but they conflict with Zuckerberg’s rather postmodern attitude to the truth. It is notoriously difficult to block offensive content without filtering out points of view that we strongly disagree with, not to mention inconvenient truths, satire and rebuttals of misinformation. On the much simpler question of what constitutes offensive imagery, the company has a mixed record. Three years ago it initially refused to take down a video of a woman being beheaded in Mexico, apparently by a member of the Zetas, a human and narco-trafficking cartel. (Eventually the clip was removed, after widespread complaints.) Then the company erred on the other side of the line earlier this year, temporarily removing a Pulitzer-prize-winning image of a Vietnamese girl fleeing from napalm bombs – because the image violated Facebook’s policy on nudity.
Traditional news media used to be the public space that helped us make up our own minds about what was true, but its waning influence over the modern electorate has helped to fuel the wave of populism that has swept through a series of Western democracies this year. Once flattened onto a pixellated surface, many of us can no longer distinguish between an article in the Guardian or New York Times and one that suggests that the Pope has endorsed Donald Trump, or that Ted Cruz’s father was involved in the assassination of President Kennedy. Alarmingly, members of the next presidential administration seem as clueless as anyone else. Shortly before the November 8 election, retired Army Lt Gen Michael Flynn, the president-elect’s incoming National Security Adviser, tweeted a link to a false news story, and claimed that the NYPD had found information on Anthony Weiner’s laptop that would “put Hillary and her crew away for life.”
At a personal level, of course, the US president-elect owes much of his own political career to the shameless promotion of a lie, namely the “birther” conspiracy that President Obama was foreign-born and possibly Muslim. Trump’s campaign manager Kellyanne Conway is a former colleague of the GOP pollster Frank Luntz, who famously taught Republicans how to copy the former Speaker of the House, Newt Gingrich, who freely used words like “corrupt,” “greed,” “hypocrisy,” “sick,” and “traitors,” when referring to political rivals. Luntz helped the party reframe the Democrats’ policies with unsettling phrases: Obamacare became “socialized medicine”; government spending became “reckless” “wasteful” or “runaway”; regulations became “job killing,” or “harmful to small businesses.” The Trump campaign represents the culmination of this disingenuous and opportunistic rhetoric, and platforms like Facebook are powerless to filter it because they steer clear of hard questions about the difference between ethical news gathering and merely dispersing it as a profitable entertainment.
President Obama recently told reporters in Germany that “If we can’t discriminate between serious arguments and propaganda, then we have problems.” On the evidence of the last few months, we can’t and we do.