One of the major topics of discussion in today’s political world is the subject of “fake news.” Many pundits, politicians and voters argue that one of the major factors that influenced the recent presidential election is the presence of articles, purporting to be genuine works of journalism, but which actually contain falsehoods. Additionally, the White House has adopted the phrase “fake news” in an attempt to discredit works of journalism that counter claims made by the federal government. One of the primary means by which “fake news” is said to proliferate is by being shared on social media platforms by users who can’t tell the difference between “fake” news and real news; the primary social media outlet receiving blame for this problem is Facebook.
Although the presidential election was conducted months ago, Facebook has recognized the problem of the spread of “fake news” and has begun to take action in an attempt to mitigate it. A new feature of the website automatically tags news items that contain information disputed by trusted, independent fact-checking websites like Snopes.com and Politifact.com. Additionally, Facebook allows users to mark news stories they think are fake by using the website’s report button. News that fact checkers deem as fake will be tagged with the label “disputed,” and users will be able to quickly navigate to a report published by a fact-checking website that explains the justifications for the judgment.
Although Facebook presents itself as an apolitical website, it has become, in just a few years, one of the primary means by which people acquire information about politics. Because it allows users to share news articles with other users, completely at their own discretion, the platform lacks the normal methods of editorial and journalistic oversight of respected news outlets like the New York Times and the Washington Post. Facebook’s wide popularity, combined with this lack of oversight, makes it a prime platform for the spread of disinformation, intentional or not. This problem is compounded by the natural human tendency to be drawn to information that confirms already-held beliefs, whether or not this information is true, and by the instinct to engage more thoroughly with entertaining or emotionally resonant narratives over more objective accounts.
In a recent post, the company’s CEO and founder, Mark Zuckerberg, described the difficulties the platform faces in determining the appropriate extent of its involvement in the spread of political information. Although Zuckerberg claims that the vast majority of the news shared on Facebook is not fake, and therefore the election was unlikely to have been swayed by fake news, he expresses a desire to keep hoaxes off of Facebook. He also notes the difficulty in distinguishing objectively between “fake” news and real news; while some cases are obvious, others are less clear, as mostly-correct stories can get some small details wrong, and truthful information can be distorted to promote a particular narrative.
Zuckerberg stresses the importance of both permitting free speech and allowing the platform to remain free of bias, which explains Facebook’s relatively lax attitude towards restricting fake news. Facebook certainly has the potential to eliminate fake news from its site entirely, by completely banning websites that consistently spread falsehoods, but in the interest of remaining open declines to do so. Additionally, according to a report by Gizmodo, Facebook chose not to combat fake news on its platform during the election for fear of backlash from conservative users.
Like all entities that operate in the public sphere, Facebook faces dual and conflicting obligations in regards to its impact on the flow of information: on the one hand, they have a responsibility to ensure that the information their users receive is appropriate and just; but, on the other hand, they are obligated not to abuse their power by censoring their users’ voices. The fact that Facebook has finally decided to take action, by tagging fake news as disputed, indicates that the platform is willing to compromise an absolutist view towards free speech in favor of protecting the interests of the electorate. The fact that this feature was introduced, despite its compromising of one of the platform’s core principles, indicates the extent of change our social and political spheres have undergone in recent months.
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