The article that scared me most this election cycle appeared in the Washington Post, documenting how Melanie Austin, a single western Pennsylvania Trump supporter, gathered information about the world around her: almost exclusively vacuuming falsehoods via Google and social media. She is one among millions. You can blame Facebook outright for Trump’s victory, or not. But at the very least, we should demand from them some accountability for their role in spreading the present toxic sea of deliberate misinformation and non-factual chaos.
Melanie Austin’s personal media diet is one that played out on a vast scale across the country, one in which traditional notions of factuality and reality were completely discarded in favor of tribalism and meme-based endorphin release, unleashing lurid tales like this, alleging the assassination of Antonin Scalia:
“They say they found a pillow on his face, which is a pretty unusual place to find a pillow,” Trump had told the talk-radio host Michael Savage, who was using his show to explain the scenario to his 5 million weekly listeners, who then spread it on Facebook, where it wound up in Melanie’s feed.
To Melanie, this was the glory of the 2016 presidential election. The truth about so many things was finally being accepted, from the highest levels of the Republican Party on down to the grass roots of America, where so many people like her didn’t care what some fact-checker said, much less that one day Trump would suggest that Obama wasn’t born in America, and on another say maybe he was.
Confirmation bias doesn’t begin to describe what Facebook offers partisans in both directions: a limitless, on-demand narrative fix, occasionally punctuated by articles grounded in actual world events, when those suit their preferences. But it was the Trump camp more than its opponent that encouraged this social media story time, because theirs was a candidate who was willing to stand at a podium and recite things he knew to be false, day after day. Trump rallies were a place to propagate conspiracy theories plucked from Facebook (and Reddit, and Twitter, and 4chan, and …), but also to plant what would become the next social media hoax. Trump warned his fans of ISIS commandos creeping across the Mexican border, Hillary’s failing health, cash payoffs to Iran, Benghazi murders, and a litany of other tales that included proper nouns from real life, but little else. And when, after a long rally, a Trump supporter logged into Facebook, they were likely greeted by a cascade of contextless, often deliberately falsified Facebook “news” stories, the sort detailed by John Herrman in an New York Times report from August. On Facebook, a meme-ified image promising new details of Hillary Clinton’s brain disease would appear alongside an advertisement, a Wall Street Journal investigation, a video game trailer, a baby picture.
Whether or not Facebook is directly culpable, this much can’t be overstated: The combination of a media literacy nadir combined with an unstoppable firehose of untrue media gave Donald Trump the ability to say virtually anything during a presidential election, without consequence. There’s no reason to believe this won’t continue to happen in every election hereafter, to say nothing of the rest of the world, where Facebook is desperate to plant roots.
At the very same time, Facebook’s executive suite was doing everything possible to avoid responsibility or even mention this very real civic crisis, in which the electorate has unprecedented access to information and an unprecedented inability to comprehend it. As recently as the tail end of August, Mark Zuckerberg went on record denying that his company is a media company, and therefore deserves none of a media company’s responsibilities: “The world needs news companies, but also technology platforms, like what we do, and we take our role in this very seriously.” I’m not sure this is true. In the face of an obvious, deliberate groundswell of misinformation and hate speech, Mark Zuckerberg and Sheryl Sandberg have declined to do literally anything to help.
The distinction between “tech” and “media” companies is unhelpful, if not totally useless — there’s simply never been a company like Facebook before, able to singlehandedly distribute and filter information to over a billion people every single day. Regardless of what it thinks of itself, this much is certain: Americans use Facebook to inform their view of America, and the world, and this service has been poisoned. Whether a technology company or a media company, Facebook has the social responsibility of any company to stop allowing its customers to be grossly hurt on a massive scale. If Facebook took its self-described role as a technology company seriously, it might recognize its role in the gargantuan distribution of falsehoods sufficient to influence an entire election, and leverage technology to correct that. Instead, Facebook’s only notable attempt at protecting its users this year was the ham-handed, globally condemned classification of the iconic Vietnam War “napalm girl” photo as child pornography, the baffling deletion of which took entire days to rectify.
So far as we can tell, Zuckerberg’s response to the election has been to stick his chief executive’s head deeper into the sand:
Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey too seems unwilling to own up to anything, but at least he has the excuse of running a declining company:
We all must hold each other, especially the leaders we put in power, accountable to that truth.
— jack (@jack) November 10, 2016
The cynical explanation here is the most plausible: People will click on and share things they want to believe are true, and the more this happens, all the better for Facebook’s (and Twitter’s) share price. The extent to which Facebook rambles about algorithmic oversight and a commitment to neutrality is only a means of ditching responsibility. Mark Zuckerberg may be living on a different planet than ours in so many ways, his mind clouded by Silicon Valley utopianism, but don’t buy for a second that he’s too aloof to fix what’s obviously broken on his website. If he and his cadre are half as smart and committed to making the world better as they claim, they could fix their own company.
We owe it to ourselves, regardless of party affiliation, to demand some quality control from Facebook. Liberals should demand better for the other half of the country — not just because their confusion helped elect Trump, but because no one deserves to live in internet-augmented ignorance. What form this fix takes, and at what cost, is beside the point: You should refuse to believe that a company with a $361 billion market capitalization and enough R&D cash to develop solar-powered airplanes lacks the resources and ingenuity to keep viral anti-news from threatening the democratic process. If Facebook employed a team of bipartisan fact-checkers to identify pages intended only to dupe millions of users, and if that team acted with only half the energy used to identify and banish nipples from the site, so much the better for the whole country. A less-toxic Facebook is doable. A less-toxic Facebook is crucial. A less-toxic Facebook is the absolute least you should demand from the people it’s made rich, because, with no great exaggeration, the ability to deliberately confuse tens of millions of American voters in exchange for banner ad revenues is a crisis. Mark, Sheryl, et al.: Please, please, please help us out.