Lies, damn lies and social media: Facebook defends role in US elections

14 Nov 2016

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg needs to decide if Facebook is a technology platform or a media company. Image: Frederic Legrand COMEO/Shutterstock

Zuckerberg personally rejects claims Facebook influenced US elections and insists that 99pc of what users see on the social network is authentic. But now Facebook faces the ultimate innovator’s dilemma of our times: is it a platform or a media company?

They say the first casualty of war is the truth.

In the fallout since US president-elect Donald Trump’s shock victory in the US elections – an outcome that based on voter numbers alone seemed unlikely – various factors are being blamed. And the battle ahead is all about telling truth from lie, fact from fiction.

Questions about the outcome range from the US electoral college system, the FBI’s questionable behaviour in the final weeks leading up to the election and of course, claims that fake news on Facebook influenced voters.

‘I am confident we can find ways for our community to tell us what content is most meaningful, but I believe we must be extremely cautious about becoming arbiters of truth ourselves’

On the latter point, the US elections were a watershed for social media, with much of the debate happening there rather than on the traditional TV box.

Critics have pointed to the mechanics of distribution on Facebook’s news feed and the problem of hoaxes or fake news.

Inside the Facebook echo chamber, everyone can hear you scream

As a result, it has been claimed that Facebook has become a sort of echo chamber that has distorted and influenced voters’ sense of the world round them.

“After the election, many people are asking whether fake news contributed to the result, and what our responsibility is to prevent fake news from spreading,” Zuckerberg said.

“These are very important questions and I care deeply about getting them right. I want to do my best to explain what we know here.

“Of all the content on Facebook, more than 99pc of what people see is authentic. Only a very small amount is fake news and hoaxes. The hoaxes that do exist are not limited to one partisan view, or even to politics. Overall, this makes it extremely unlikely hoaxes changed the outcome of this election in one direction or the other.”

Facebook’s existential question: platform or media company?

But no matter what Zuckerberg claims, there is no getting away from the reality that the more material shared, whether true or untrue, the more revenue that Facebook clocks up.

So what is Facebook, a media company or a technology platform? Yes, technology is the core of what Facebook is about, in essence. It was built by engineers or hackers in the Facebook tradition.

But if it brings in revenues from advertising, then doesn’t that make it a media company too?

Rather than getting to the core of the problem, Facebook is taking an engineering approach by getting users to “flag” if they spot fake news.

Is this Facebook avoiding the problem?

In the traditional media, users or “readers” as they would be known in the newspaper world consume the information. It is not their job to be news editors. Professionals were employed to do that and often, newspapers clearly wore their political leanings (or biases) on their sleeves. Often, very often in fact, the truth was distorted to sell more papers.

Will Facebook ever be a truth machine?

The issue here is that there are people whose opinions count but they aren’t often disposed to tell truth from lie and Facebook is relying on them (and algorithms) to do that. People end up trusting the medium on which they get this information and they follow tribes they trust, and that means Facebook has a responsibility to help sort truth from lie.

Zuckerberg partly admitted this.

“We have already launched work enabling our community to flag hoaxes and fake news, and there is more we can do here. We have made progress, and we will continue to work on this to improve further.

“This is an area where I believe we must proceed very carefully though. Identifying the ‘truth’ is complicated. While some hoaxes can be completely debunked, a greater amount of content, including from mainstream sources, often gets the basic idea right but some details wrong or omitted.

“An even greater volume of stories express an opinion that many will disagree with and flag as incorrect even when factual. I am confident we can find ways for our community to tell us what content is most meaningful, but I believe we must be extremely cautious about becoming arbiters of truth ourselves.”

Zuckerberg said that Facebook played a role in getting 2m people to get off their couches and to get out and vote, creating dialogue hitherto impossible.

“This has been a historic election and it has been very painful for many people. Still, I think it’s important to try to understand the perspective of people on the other side. In my experience, people are good, and even if you may not feel that way today, believing in people leads to better results over the long term.”

Well, the next four years could be a very long four years. And Facebook needs to decide if it is a tech company or a media company.

With great power comes responsibility.

Mark Zuckerberg, CEO of Facebook. Image: Frederic Legrand – COMEO/Shutterstock

John Kennedy is a journalist who served as editor of Silicon Republic for 17 years