Facebook’s Fake News Poisons Democracy

Facebook’s Fake News Poisons Democracy December 2, 2016


In the past couple of months, I’ve noticed a significant dropoff in page views on Daylight Atheism. From what I’ve found out, it’s not just me and it’s not even just Patheos. It’s an industry-wide problem, affecting media companies large and small, and it’s being driven by Facebook changing its algorithm to deemphasize links to external sites in favor of native content, like photos and status updates from your friends.

In a sense, this is an understandable business decision. Whenever you see a link shared on Facebook and click through to read it, that’s time you’re not looking at Facebook’s ads. They have every reason to want to keep people on their own site as long as possible and to discourage them from browsing elsewhere. (Although their business model is perfectly happy if people like and comment on stories without reading them.)

In and of itself, this isn’t a matter of concern to me. Social media sites come and go, and I wrote this blog for a long time before I made any money from it. Of course I find it flattering to get more page views rather than fewer, but my ego can cope.

But Facebook’s self-interested, profit-maximizing decision has much worse consequences for society as a whole. To compensate for the drop in referrals, content creators who get paid per click feel a selective pressure to write more inflammatory and sensational headlines, even if they’re completely fictitious, so that more readers will be tempted to click through:

Your average news story — something from the New York Times on a history of the Alt-Right, for example — won’t get clicked, because Facebook has built their environment to resist people clicking external links. Marketers figured this out and realized that to get you to click they had to up the ante. So they produced conspiracy sites that have carefully designed, fictional stories that are inflammatory enough that you *will* click.

In other words, the consipiracy clickbait sites appeared as a reaction to a Facebook interface that resisted external linking. And this is why fake news does better on Facebook than real news.

Given Facebook’s behemoth size and reach, this is ominous for a democracy that depends on its voters being informed citizens who can weigh the evidence and make rational choices. It’s not a new phenomenon – remember Mark Twain said that a lie could travel around the world before the truth had its boots on – but it’s never been more true than it is today.

In effect, Facebook (and other social media sites, which have the same incentives) are training us to be angry, fact-averse conspiracy theorists. They’re encouraging us to screen out carefully researched, neutral, dispassionate reporting in favor of inflammatory fake news and other garbage crafted to go viral.

This article gives you an idea of just how big a problem this is:

For our fake story, we’re choosing the most popular story from the Denver Guardian, a fake newspaper created in the final days of the election. Its story “FBI Agent Suspected In Hillary Leaks Found Dead In Apparent Murder-Suicide” has now been shared on Facebook well over half a million times, as you can see with this call to Facebook’s API. This story exists on a site made to look like a real local newspaper and details quotes from people both real and fake about the murder-suicide of an FBI agent and his wife supposedly implicated in leaking Clinton’s emails…

The story is, of course, completely fake. But at 568,000 shares (shares, mind you, not views) it is several orders of magnitude more popular a story than anything any major city paper publishes on a daily basis.

This problem spans the political spectrum. The left has its own sites devoted to fake news and low-quality clickbait, like angry conspiracizing about how the Democratic primary was “stolen” from Bernie Sanders. But the right seems especially prone to it, as is unintentionally shown by the story of a Macedonian town where teenagers were raking in cash by launching fake-news sites at a furious pace:

Earlier in the year, some in Veles experimented with left-leaning or pro–Bernie Sanders content, but nothing performed as well on Facebook as Trump content.

The consequences of this are predictable: legions of conservative voters fervently believe stories that could be disproven with even minimal effort, like the claim that “millions of illegals voted“. Their vague memory of having seen it on Facebook is all the proof they need.

The spread of impenetrable disinformation bubbles is a frightening sign for the future of American democracy, especially together with a cringing media that won’t point out when politicians are blatantly lying. It’s impossible for voters to make good choices if millions of them passionately believe that falsehoods are on the same footing as facts. There is an objective reality that can’t be denied forever, and sooner or later, if we persist in ignoring it, we’ll careen into disaster.

If Donald Trump had lost, there’s a chance this problem would have corrected itself, as a stunning defeat just might have provoked a long-overdue bout of soul-searching on the right. As it is, his post-factual politics have been validated and rewarded, and there’s every reason to believe that we’ll see the same tactics again and again in future elections. There’s no penalty for not telling the truth anymore, and there may not be for a very long time to come.

Image credit: Brocken Inaglory, released under CC BY-SA 3.0 license; via Wikimedia Commons

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