In response to concerns that Facebook may have affected the election and spread false information, Mark Zuckerberg, the company’s CEO and co-founder, has a simple message: Don’t blame us.
“Personally I think the idea that fake news on Facebook, which is a very small amount of the content, influenced the election in any way… is a pretty crazy idea,” Zuckerberg said in a public Q&A session at the annual Techonomy conference in California Thursday night. “Voters make decisions based on their lived experience.”
Others in the tech industry are less sure. Ev Williams, co-founder of Twitter and current chief of Medium, didn’t address Facebook by name but said that the way social and traditional media work together is “broken.”
“I think the problem with talking about the role of social media in particular is its impact is impossible to separate from the rest of media,” Williams said over email. “Commercial media and social media play off of and multiply each other. They are deeply intertwined, and the whole thing is pretty broken.”
Zuckerberg might sound a little defensive because he’s feeling quite a bit of heat this week. Critics across academia, the press, and the tech industry have charged Facebook with enabling and profiting from the widespread dissemination of hyper-partisan fake news.
Though fake news proliferated on both the Left and the Right during the presidential campaigns, a BuzzFeed News investigation earlier this year found that the leading right-wing Facebook pages published fake news in 38 percent of posts (the figure was 20 percent for left-wing pages). If you’re interested in what a real-time visualization of this looks like, the Wall Street Journal’s “Blue Feed, Red Feed” project is a good place to start.
For people like Indiana University professor Fil Menczer, who studies the effect and travel of misinformation, the potential damage Facebook has wrought is troubling, and Facebook’s disinclination to do anything about it, even moreso.
“There is no way of establishing whether online misinformation played a pivotal role in the election results. This is itself worrisome — our democratic process might be manipulated by abuse of social media, and we don’t know,” Menczer told VICE News in an email. “What we do know is that there is an industry of fake news. We also know from our research that misinformation is just as likely to go viral as reliable information. And we know that abuse of social media is rampant.”
In his remarks Thursday night, Zuckerberg turned this line of criticism back on the critics. He said that to assert the possibility of fake news’ swaying voters’ behavior in the election suggested “a certain profound lack of empathy.”
But Zuckerberg may be missing a more tactical and cynical approach among some of his most controversial users. As Mike Cernovich, a Trump-supporting white supremacist with a large social media following, told The New Yorker last month, he calibrated his message to get picked up by TV networks, part of the “broken” process described by Ev Williams. From the article: “If [a story I share is] on Drudge, then it’s on ‘Hannity,’ ” Cernovich said. “If it’s on ‘Hannity,’ then Brian Stelter’s talking about it on CNN.”
Whether Facebook will reckon with its role in spreading misinformation remains to be seen. Though Zuckerberg insists Facebook is a technology company and not a media company, a narrative that allows the company to abdicate any obligation to consider this problem, Facebook will sometimes discreetly back down once the uproar dissipates.
ProPublica last month reported that Facebook allows advertisers to exclude audiences by race and ethnicity, which poses a serious civil rights problem. At the time, a Facebook executive defended the tool as allowing consumers to see ads that are most relevant to them.
Earlier on Friday morning, while everyone was still discussing Zuckerberg’s comments from the previous night, Facebook quietly revealed that it would disallow certain kinds of advertisers from using the feature.