Hillary Clinton was the choice of nearly every American newspaper editorial board. It didn’t matter.
When it comes to influencing public opinion, the 2016 presidential election demonstrated with sobering effect the weakening role of traditional media and the ascendant power of social networks like Facebook.
Forty-four percent of Americans get their news from Facebook, according to the Pew Research Center, filling a void left by the declining ranks of newspapers. By comparison, only 2 in 10 U.S. adults get news from print newspapers today.
The consequences of Facebook’s growing sway became clear during an election cycle that saw the rise of partisan news, conspiracies, fake articles and a winning candidate who fully embraced social media as a way to circumvent the media establishment and its proclivity for checking facts.
The problem with rumors and fake news grew so acute that President Obama felt the need to address it at a Clinton rally Monday in Michigan.
“And people, if they just repeat attacks enough, and outright lies over and over again, as long as it's on Facebook and people can see it, as long as it’s on social media, people start believing it. And it creates this dust cloud of nonsense,” he said.
In a Thursday Q&A, Facebook Chief Executive Mark Zuckerberg dismissed the notion that his company had any role in influencing the outcome of Tuesday’s election.
“The idea that fake news on Facebook … influenced the election in any way I think is a pretty crazy idea,” Zuckerberg said.
“I do think,” he continued, “there is a certain profound lack of empathy in asserting that the only reason why someone could have voted the way they did is because they saw some fake news.”
Pew research shows social media can have an impact, however. A survey conducted by the center over the summer found 20% of social media users changed their views on a political or social issue because of something they read on social media.
The question now is whether Facebook and other social media platforms have the responsibility to stop, or at least identify to readers, phony news. That’s eliciting some reflection in Silicon Valley, which has always advocated a laissez faire approach to information.
In a widely shared video Wednesday, Dave McClure, founder of the business accelerator 500 Startups, went on an expletive-laden tirade about technology and President-elect Donald Trump’s victory at a tech summit in Lisbon, Portugal.
“Technology has a role in that we … provide communication platforms for the rest of the [expletive] country and we are allowing [expletive] to happen like the cable news networks.… It’s a propaganda medium. People aren’t aware of the [expletive] they’re being told.”
In a phone interview later, McClure challenged other entrepreneurs to live up to the industry cliche of making the world a better place.
“We have to support the well-being of society,” McClure said. “With great power comes great responsibility. These are platforms with hundreds of millions of people.”
Even backers of Reddit, a sprawling network of user-generated forums that bills itself as the “front page of the Internet,” are having second thoughts about an ecosystem that prizes virality and offers little reward for accuracy.
“Back when Reddit was first started, I thought their cheeky tag line ‘freedom from the press’ was all to the good,” said Paul Graham, co-founder of tech incubator Y-Combinator and the first investor in Reddit. “Now I worry about where we're headed.”
“Technological change is mostly inevitable,” Graham continued. “I don't think we could have avoided what's happened. Often when technology causes a problem, it also hands you a solution. I'm hoping that will be the case here. But I'm damned if I know what it is.”
Facebook has long argued that its news feed is a reflection of a user’s wider world. Over the summer, the company changed its news feed algorithm to deliver more posts from friends and family rather than articles. The company said it would continue to tweak its news feed algorithm, but it declined to say what, if anything, it would do about bogus journalism on its platform.
The Internet has always been home to fringe ideas and hoaxes, of course, but rarely have they been bolstered by an all-consuming topic like this year’s election and powerful social media platforms to fan the flames.
Facebook reported that 115.3 million users generated 716.3 million posts, likes and comments about the election. Meanwhile, Twitter said it registered more than 75 million election-related tweets on election day, about two-and-a-half times more than it did on election day in 2012.
The staggering election-related activity on Facebook comes at a time when the social network has been littered with thousands of fake stories with headlines like “FBI AGENT SUSPECTED IN HILLARY EMAIL LEAKS FOUND DEAD IN APPARENT MURDER-SUICIDE” from fake news organizations with reputable-sounding names such as the Denver Guardian.
Last week, BuzzFeed reported on teens in Macedonia who churn out hundreds of politically charged make-believe articles for American audiences, reaping the digital advertising revenue from hundreds of thousands of shares.
The article noted that a fake story from Macedonia headlined, “Hillary Clinton In 2013: ‘I Would Like To See People Like Donald Trump Run For Office; They’re Honest And Can’t Be Bought,’” garnered 480,000 shares, reactions, and comments on Facebook. That’s nearly three times the Facebook interactions the New York Times got for its scoop about Donald Trump declaring $916 million in losses on his 1995 income tax returns, the BuzzFeed story said.
Fake news even made its way to the candidates. Trump himself has used his widely followed Twitter account to retweet and share false crime data that massively overstates the percentage of whites killed by blacks in the U.S.
Journalism experts say Facebook needs to take more responsibility for its content now that it commands the influence newspapers and news networks once did — just without the same scrutiny and regulations. The $360-billion company doesn’t need a broadcast license nor is it largely responsible for what its users publish, thanks to Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, which places the responsibility on individual users.
That effectively shields Facebook from libel and defamation, giving it room to take a hands-off approach on content.
The company may have other reasons for not wanting to get closely involved in curating content.
Facebook got rid of its human news curators this year after they were accused by conservative groups of favoring established media sources for its trending news feature. That job now rests on an algorithm.
If Facebook wants more eyeballs — and it’s in the business of getting as many as possible — it’s incentivized to give its users the news they want rather than the news that’s real (perhaps one of the reasons why daily newspaper circulation has declined all but one year in the last decade). That’s merely widening the echo chamber inside communities that dismiss traditional media as biased and elitist.
“If their goal is to simply retain user engagement by reaffirming everything users already believe without challenging them, then there are real consequences. They need to own up to that,” said Gabriel Kahn, co-director of the Media, Economics and Entrepreneurship program at USC's Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism.
Kahn said the proliferation of fake news reminded him of what the late Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan often liked to say: “Everyone is entitled to his own opinion, but not to his own facts.”
But the continued undermining of institutions such as the news media in the eyes of the public remains troubling for Kahn.
“I’ve dedicated my professional life to reporting accurately about difficult and complicated events and I continue to believe there is a public value and an economic value to doing the job of a reporter as classically defined,” said Kahn, a former reporter and editor for the Wall Street Journal.
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Nov. 11, 9:05 a.m.: This article was updated to include comment from Facebook Chief Executive Mark Zuckerberg.
Nov. 11, 2:22 pm.: This article was updated to include Pew Research Center findings about social media changing people’s views on political and social issues.
This article was originally published Nov. 10 at 3 a.m.