If fake news weren’t on Facebook, peo­ple would still find it some­where else

The Myanmar Times - - News - GRE­GORY FERENSTEIN news­room@mm­times.com

IN 2009, one of the world’s fore­most po­lit­i­cal sci­en­tists pub­lished a prophetic re­search study ques­tion­ing how much in­flu­ence the me­dia had in elec­tions. In “Does the Me­dia Mat­ter?” Alan Ger­ber, a pro­fes­sor at Yale, and his team found that ran­domly as­sign­ing par­tic­i­pants to re­ceive dif­fer­ent news­pa­pers or no news­pa­per had “no ef­fect on po­lit­i­cal knowl­edge, stated opin­ions, or turnout in post­elec­tion sur­vey and voter data”. Most par­tic­i­pants, they found, had made up their mind be­fore reading the news.

This was not a unique finding. In an­other re­cent ex­per­i­men­tal study, re­searchers found that fact-check­ing of in­ac­cu­rate state­ments had lit­tle im­pact on chang­ing the minds of Don­ald Trump vot­ers. Par­tic­i­pants were given a series of false­hoods Trump had said, then shown that they were not true. But vot­ers main­tained their un­wa­ver­ing sup­port for him, even if they ad­mit­ted to pre­vi­ously be­liev­ing un­true in­for­ma­tion.

“I guess it means that politi­cians like Trump can spread mis­in­for­ma­tion with­out los­ing sup­port,” con­cluded the study’s author, Bri­ony Swire-Thomp­son, a grad­u­ate stu­dent at the Univer­sity of Western Aus­tralia.

In many ways, Trump’s vic­tory was a large-scale nat­u­ral ex­per­i­ment reaf­firm­ing the find­ings in th­ese re­search stud­ies. We may never again wit­ness the me­dia’s united ef­fort to con­demn a ma­jor-party pres­i­den­tial can­di­date. Only a hand­ful of news­pa­pers en­dorsed Trump, while sev­eral me­dia out­lets that al­most al­ways sup­port Repub­li­cans urged their read­ers to re­ject him as an un­am­bigu­ous threat to the world order. This un­prece­dented coali­tion was, ev­i­dently, in­ef­fec­tive.

Now, rather than ad­mit­ting the dif­fi­cult re­al­i­sa­tion of their own lim­its, many jour­nal­ists are seek­ing to re­di­rect blame. Facebook, where “fake news” spread vi­rally side by side with real re­port­ing, has be­come the go-to scape­goat. “Mark Zucker­berg is in de­nial,” de­clared one piece in The New York Times that ex­co­ri­ated the so­cial net­work CEO for de­fend­ing the com­pany’s role in the elec­tion.

Zucker­berg has called ac­cu­sa­tions that Facebook in­flu­enced the elec­tion “a pretty crazy idea”, cit­ing in­ter­nal data show­ing that fake news, hoaxes and al­ter­na­tive news sites rep­re­sent a tiny frac­tion of the over­all news shared on the plat­form. He says Facebook rou­tinely in­tro­duces a di­verse set of views to its users, but they choose to ig­nore them and don’t click through to sto­ries that dif­fer from their pre­con­ceived opin­ions.

In­deed, re­search sug­gests that most links shared on Facebook aren’t even clicked on but are shared by par­ti­sans who al­ready know what they want to be­lieve. On the other hand, re­port­ing by Buz­zFeed sug­gests that fake news, most likely hy­per­par­ti­san in na­ture, was more pop­u­lar than main­stream news just be­fore the elec­tion.

“Right now the prob­lem isn’t that di­verse in­for­ma­tion isn’t there … but we haven’t got­ten peo­ple to en­gage with it in higher pro­por­tions,” Zucker­berg said at the Te­chon­omy con­fer­ence in Half Moon Bay, Calif.

It’s true: scape­goat­ing Facebook ig­nores more fun­da­men­tal is­sues with Amer­i­can democ­racy.

Be­fore the in­ter­net and the pro­lif­er­a­tion of ca­ble news, pro­duc­ers and news­pa­per edi­tors en­joyed a golden era as the gate­keep­ers of the na­tional con­ver­sa­tion. Much of Amer­ica was all fed the same news, while out­lier views were ex­cluded from TV and print.

The in­ter­net is an un­usu­ally ef­fi­cient ve­hi­cle for mak­ing money off the spread of fake and in­cen­di­ary news, which is why Google, Twit­ter and Facebook have at­tempted to clamp down on ads paired with un­scrupu­lous links. But the un­com­fort­able re­al­ity is that jour­nal­ists no longer en­joy the con­ve­nience of a cap­tive au­di­ence. Read­ers can find news wher­ever they like; Facebook makes it eas­ier for peo­ple to en­counter and share it, yes, but if that plat­form didn’t ex­ist, some­thing else would.

Ul­tra­con­ser­va­tive out­lets, such as the Drudge Re­port, are re­port­ing record traf­fic. Self-se­lec­tion is even oc­cur­ring within con­ser­va­tive out­lets, as Trump cham­pion Sean Han­nity for the first time beat his col­leagues Bill O’Reilly and Megyn Kelly on Fox News Chan­nel in the 25-to-54-year-old rat­ings de­mo­graphic, according to the Nielsen data re­leased in Septem­ber.

Un­less we fix the de­mand for bi­ased or fake news, no fil­ter feature that Facebook or Google builds will make much of a dif­fer­ence. Amer­ica will likely need to re­form the ed­u­ca­tion sys­tem to cre­ate a more in­formed elec­torate. Sec­re­tary of Ed­u­ca­tion John B King Jr re­cently called for a greater em­pha­sis on civics ed­u­ca­tion, while many states are ei­ther ramp­ing up their civics cour­ses or mulling new grad­u­a­tion re­quire­ments.

Of course, jour­nal­ism has an es­sen­tial role in ed­u­cat­ing the pub­lic and el­e­vat­ing na­tional dis­course. If 29 per­cent of Amer­i­cans be­lieve Pres­i­dent Obama is a Mus­lim, that re­flects the me­dia’s in­abil­ity to con­vey ideas ef­fec­tively. Fix­ing that is our great chal­lenge, our re­spon­si­bil­ity.

Re­search sug­gests that it is pos­si­ble to coun­ter­act ru­mours only when read­ers trust the source. According to Gallup, trust in the me­dia is at a his­toric low of 32pc, down 28 points since 2005.

The pro­lif­er­a­tion of par­ti­san news and con­spir­acy-the­ory out­lets has likely fu­elled this dis­trust and made it harder for cit­i­zens to iden­tify high-qual­ity me­dia.

In­creas­ing trust in qual­ity news pub­lish­ers will likely re­quire jour­nal­ists to en­gage with voices and ideas they find deeply of­fen­sive, reach­ing out to the dark­est el­e­ments of the in­ter­net they might oth­er­wise wish to avoid.

I want to be clear: I’m not blam­ing my col­leagues in the news busi­ness. But the re­ac­tion against Facebook is naive about the re­al­i­ties of the new me­dia land­scape and un­duly pes­simistic about the ca­pac­ity of cit­i­zens to make good choices.

The in­con­ve­nient truth is that the in­ter­net is a re­flec­tion of what peo­ple are say­ing and think­ing, whether it’s on Facebook or al­ter­na­tives like the Drudge Re­port and the mas­sive un­der­ground of email chains that cir­cu­late con­ser­va­tive ru­mours. A bil­lion­aire CEO will not stem the ris­ing un­rest of Amer­i­can pop­ulism, and it’s trou­bling that any­one hopes one com­pany should ex­ert so much power even if it could.

Be­fore we can solve Facebook’s prob­lem, we need to fix our democ­racy.

– The Wash­ing­ton Post Gre­gory Ferenstein is the editor of the a syndicated col­umn, and author of

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