Hey, Mark Zuckerberg, Trump's Rise Is Partly On You

Facebook helped spread lies and stoke emotion on both sides during the election. It needs to reckon with that.
David Paul Morris/Bloomberg via Getty Images

Donald Trump likes to talk about “draining the swamp.” The president-elect seems to mean cleaning up corruption in Washington. But for the real swamp of 2016, you needn’t look to our capitol ― just pick up your phone and open Facebook.

The social network describes itself as a tech company, but in reality it is the main news source for a growing number of Americans, according to data from Pew. In the lead-up to the 2016 election, it was often a black hole of misinformation and propaganda, fueling bias and hatred on both sides.

Nonetheless, the company’s founder and CEO, Mark Zuckerberg, downplayed fake news’ role in the election. “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 — I think is a pretty crazy idea,” Zuckerberg reportedly said at a conference Thursday. “Voters make decisions based on their lived experience.”

Zuckerberg didn’t provide evidence that fake news didn’t play a role, but anecdotally, it seems to have influenced the wider conversation in 2016 (fanning the flames on stories around Hillary Clinton’s health, for example).

On Thursday, the company said it would do more to prevent the spread of false stories on its platform.

“We take misinformation on Facebook very seriously,” Adam Mosseri, VP of product management at Facebook, told TechCrunch. “[W]e understand there’s so much more we need to do, and that is why it’s important that we keep improving our ability to detect misinformation.”

But fake news isn’t Facebook’s only problem. The platform is designed to arouse our emotions. Respectable news outlets and content farms alike craft stories for the social network with that in mind ― The Huffington Post included.

Taking news stories out of the realm of fact and into the realm of feelings causes problems. It overemphasizes the trivial ― Trump was looking at his wife’s ballot! ― and under-emphasizes the front-page pieces that aren’t as conventionally exciting. It’s the perfect forum for a candidate who’s light on policies, plays easy with the facts and is adept at riling up his supporters and opponents.

On Thursday, Fortune magazine named Zuckerberg businessperson of the year. After all, the company is massively profitable, on pace to earn $7 billion in profits on $27 billion in revenues this year, the magazine notes. In its profile, Fortune celebrates Zuckerberg’s underappreciated management acumen but notes only in passing the site’s failure to grapple with its role as a news outlet.

Zuckerberg himself has said that Facebook is not a media company. But the social network is where Americans increasingly get their news: at least 44 percent get news on Facebook, according to a recent Pew survey.

While the internet has always been a breeding ground for misinformation and conspiracy theories, the walled gardens and massive user base of Facebook pose even deeper existential threats.

Throughout the election cycle, conservatives and Trump supporters delivered a reliable, regular dose of outright lies about Clinton ― that she would be indicted, that she was so sick she had to be propped up on pillows, that she was linked to a pedophilia sex ring, as Mashable’s Damon Beres points out. That last story was shared hundreds of thousands of times.

Liberal users were equally culpable, clicking on and sharing plenty of false stories on how Donald Trump proposed a “ban on Muslims.” Not quite. Trump proposed a ban on Muslim immigration to this country. That’s religious discrimination ― it fueled bigotry and hate and it’s terrible ― but the two aren’t the same.

Increasingly, reporters and editors cater to Facebook with headlines meant to trigger emotion ― to get users to click a button that connotes “like” or “love” or “sad” or “angry.” That often means stirring emotion over reason. It means playing into readers’ biases. This is where civil discourse breaks down.

A writer at Techdirt argued that Facebook wasn’t the problem and that we would be “idiots” to blame it for Trump’s rise. Many have. “Yes, many people are falling for fake or bogus or sensationalized news,” he wrote. “But people are believing those stories because they match with their real world experience of seeing how the system has worked (or not worked) for too long.”

In other words, people believe what they want to believe. The thing is: Facebook makes that a lot easier.

Facebook did not create our partisan divides. There are many reasons for the rise of Trump; media and academics will be analyzing this election for years to come.

Of course some conversations on Facebook are collegial and authentic, and many people have found support for each other there. But to argue that the way people consume news did not contribute to a new reality or that Facebook is “just a platform” seems at a minimum premature if not downright overly defensive.

Zuckerberg on Thursday also seemed to argue that we need to try and better understand Trump voters. “I do think there is a certain profound lack of empathy in asserting that the only reason someone could have voted the way they did is they saw some fake news,” he said. “If you believe that, then I don’t think you have internalized the message the Trump supporters are trying to send ... ”

But this is a false flag. No one is arguing that fake news is the sole driver of the Trump vote, just part of the wider media narrative in 2016 that helped fuel his rise.

Some in the tech community are starting to grapple with their responsibility as purveyors of information, as an excellent piece in the LA Times on Thursday noted.

“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,” Dave McClure, founder of the business accelerator 500 Startups, told a tech summit in Lisbon this week, speaking of Trump’s win. And while not addressing Facebook specifically, it wasn’t hard to draw that conclusion. “People aren’t aware of the [expletive] they’re being told.” McClure called technology a propaganda medium.

We’re in uncharted territory: Facebook and its defenders should think deeply about its new role and take responsibility for it. Think of it as part of the company’s efforts “to scale,” a popular startup term for adjusting to a growing user base.

This doesn’t have to be about blame. If Zuckerberg is truly the management genius Fortune would have you believe ― and is serious about his stated wish to make the world a better place ― he should thoughtfully examine his site’s role as a media outlet and news purveyor.

This story has been updated to include comments Zuckerberg made Thursday.

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