News stories are supposed to help ordinary voters understand the world around them. But in the 2016 election, news stories online too often had the opposite effect. Stories rocketed around the internet that were misleading, sloppily reported, or in some cases totally made up.
Over the course of 2016, Facebook users learned that the pope endorsed Donald Trump (he didn’t), that a Democratic operative was murdered after agreeing to testify against Hillary Clinton (it never happened), that Bill Clinton raped a 13-year-old girl (a total fabrication), and many other totally bogus “news” stories. Stories like this thrive on Facebook because Facebook’s algorithm prioritizes “engagement” — and a reliable way to get readers to engage is by making up outrageous nonsense about politicians they don’t like.
A big problem here is that the internet has broken down the traditional distinction between professional news-gathering and amateur rumor-mongering. On the internet, the “Denver Guardian” — a fake news site designed to look like a real Colorado newspaper — can reach a wide audience as easily as real news organizations like the Denver Post, the New York Times, and Fox News.
Since last week’s election, there has been a fierce debate about whether the flood of fake news — much of it prejudicial to Hillary Clinton — could have swung the election to Donald Trump. Internet giants are coming under increasing pressure to do something about the problem.
On Monday, Google announced that it was going to cut fake news sites off from access to its vast advertising network, depriving them of a key revenue source. Facebook quickly followed suit with its own ad network.
At the same time, CEO Mark Zuckerberg has signaled reluctance to have Facebook become more active in weeding out fake news stories. He described it as “a pretty crazy idea” to think fake news on Facebook could have swayed the election. He says Facebook will look for new ways to stop the spread of fake news, but he also argues that “we must proceed very carefully” and that Facebook must be “extremely cautious about becoming arbiters of truth ourselves.”
The importance of this issue is only going to grow over time. More and more people are getting their news from the internet, putting more and more power in the hands of companies like Google, Twitter, and especially Facebook. The leaders of those companies are going to be under increasing pressure to use that power wisely.
The Internet Is Growing
In the 1990s and early 2000s, it was common to think of the internet as a decentralized, even anarchic, place where no one was really in charge. Online-only news organizations were still in their infancy, so that most people either got their news from traditional sources like newspapers or cable news shows, or else they went to the home pages of conventional news organizations like the New York Times, the Atlantic, or Fox News.
The rise of social media sites has changed things in two major ways.
First, social media has drastically lowered barriers to entry in the news business. It has always been easy for anyone to publish a website, of course. But as news consumption is increasingly driven by social media sharing, it’s becoming easier than ever for no-name sites to reach a big audience.
At the same time, a handful of big tech companies — Twitter, Google, and especially Facebook — have gained a huge and growing influence over what news people see. 44 percent of US adults tell pollsters they got news from Facebook in 2016. That’s vastly larger than other news-focused social media sites like Twitter (9 percent) and Reddit (2 percent). And while many people get their news from television programs or newspapers, those media are divided among many competing news organizations. This means that Facebook has a larger influence over ordinary Americans’ media diets than almost any other news organization.
Normally we think that organizations with a lot of power have an obligation to use that power responsibly. But the leaders of the largest technology companies have resisted thinking of themselves in those terms. They like to think of their sites as neutral platforms that help users share information with each other — without the company making value judgments of its own.
But this isn’t how power works. When an authority figure turns a blind eye to a problem that’s happening under his watch, the problem doesn’t go away. It festers, often becoming an even bigger problem over time.
Fake news is a problem, but we don’t know how big it is
The problem of fake news is so new that we don’t have definitive data on how big of a problem it is. But there are some reasons to think it could be very significant.
We know that low-quality news stories have proliferated on Facebook. For example, investigations by BuzzFeed and the Guardian found that a group of cynical Macedonian hucksters had created dozens of right-wing news sites that publish low-quality pro-Trump news stories. Some are plagiarized from other conservative news sites. Others appear to be totally made up, with headlines like “Proof surfaces that Obama was born in Kenya,” “Bill Clinton’s sex tape just leaked,” and “Pope Francis forbids Catholics from voting for Hillary!”
“Yes, the info in the blogs is bad, false, and misleading but the rationale is that ‘if it gets the people to click on it and engage, then use it,’” a Macedonian student told BuzzFeed.
Other fake news is generated by partisan bloggers taking news tidbits out of context and drawing totally wrong conclusions from them. For example, some confused conservative bloggers misread a leaked email from Clinton adviser John Podesta as evidence that Democrats were manipulating public poll results. In fact, Democrats were using a standard polling technique called oversampling on Democrats’ own internal polls — but that didn’t stop the story from spreading among online conservatives.
And fake news hasn’t only circulated on the right-hand side of the political spectrum. A story about Pope Francis endorsing Bernie Sanders was also made up.
As the internet’s most popular news source, Facebook appears to have the biggest fake news problem. But it’s not a problem that only afflicts Facebook. In the wake of last week’s election, one of the top search results on Google was a post claiming that Trump won the popular vote — he didn’t.