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Facebook 'Fake News': A Scapegoat?

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Discretion advised: satirical themes.

One thing you may have spotted in the news recently is the announcement that 'post-truth' is now Oxford Dictionaries' word of the year (hyphenated though it is). Something else you may have noticed are Facebook's latest headline-grabs. Both, it seems, are making the news thanks to their shared roots in the US Presidential election. But let's consider the Facebook side of things.

A week ago, we were noting how its users were talking about the outcome of the vote, and examining what political posts can actually achieve. Things were then scintillated as people began considering the social media giant as a major contributor to the supposedly baffling Trump phenomenon, initially for its apparent facilitation of the so-called 'echo chamber' effect. Now, however, the grand thermostat has moved up another notch (reaching the third degree, as it were), with allegations emerging from various media outlets that Facebook's persistent publication of what's being called 'fake news' was another contributory factor in the surprise outcome of the US election...reaching, perhaps, the stage at which we can start believing that Mark Zuckerberg himself was principally responsible for it. On Tuesday, the Guardian called for all 'facts' to be labelled as such, whilst others have been advocating the use of various Google Chrome extensions like 'B.S. Detector', which alert users when headlines they encounter come from 'questionable sources.' Responding to the growing turbulence, Facebook has announced it will ban 'fake news' sites from its advertising network.

But how far is Facebook embroiled in a 'fake news crisis'? Indeed, given the implications of molding an outlook based upon binary 'fake'/'real' distinctions, is this really what we should be calling it? And finally, are we really stepping through the looking glass, or just casting all our troubles upon a sacrificial lamb? It seems we're straying too close to the latter case. Indeed, what is more, there are at least three ways in which news is generally considered 'fake': one of which, unfortunately, does not necessarily deserve such a label.  

The first type of 'fake news' is that which is meant to be a joke. On Tuesday, the BBC's Newsbeat service interviewed somebody called Chief Reporter, captain of the fake news site Southend News Network. Chief Reporter had that day issued a 'frank apology,' claiming 'full responsibility for Donald Trump's victory in the recent US Presidential election.' Publications like SNN, Daily Mash, NewsThump and The Onion are not only hilarious but are also clearly bogus. That's to say, their creators specifically intend them not to be taken seriously. They're the fun kind of 'fake news' which can't really be misconstrued as anything else.

The second type, however, is that which is designed to have readers believe fabricated facts. Here's where it gets tricky. The Guardian claims that 'more than 100 pro-Trump phoney sites were being run from a single Balkan town' during the election campaigns. Buzzfeed recently reported that 'hyperpartisan' Facebook pages - those allied deeply to either the Democrats or Republicans - were each 'publishing false and misleading misinformation at an alarming rate' (specifically, 20% of the far-Left's posts were phony compared to 38% of the far-Right's). What's more, throughout the primaries and Presidential debates, the BBC's Reality Check service ran fact-checking on each candidate's statements, and found them both to be espousing baseless claims at certain points. These are the main sources of 'fake news' which seem to be attracting everybody's ire. They are intended to be taken seriously, even though the facts upon which they are based are fabricated (although their creators may not realise it).

However, the criticism of these sources, whilst justified, is leading some to conclusions which are not only wobbly but also somewhat unsettling.

The problem is that there seems to be a growing inclination to consider a third type of news 'fake' - at least by implication, by virtue of its not being considered 'real'. This type of news is that which omits facts, arguments and opinions which do not support the author's point-of-view. An easy example would be the kind of 'hyperpartisan' news which Buzzfeed was reporting on above; the majority of which isn't based on fabricated facts but rather upon what one might call, if they were being critical, factual 'cherry-picking'. Here's where it gets really tricky, because commentators often confuse definitions whilst driving an unnecessary wedge between 'reality' and 'journalistic integrity' in relation to these types of media. So, let's unpack those ideas.

Facebook are currently under fire for two things: their censorship of pro-Trump trending topics during the election campaigns, and their refusal to intervene to block 'fake news' from appearing on people's newsfeeds. They're therefore being told to fess-up to two charges: first, that they are indeed a 'news outlet' (like Twitter...although Twitter, for the record, mainly re-defined itself as a news site to satisfy shareholders, not necessarily because they actually are one), and second, that they are therefore lacking the stuff which all such outlets need: journalistic integrity. Their shortage of the latter is being called-out because its net effect was to give Trump the edge.

But let's take a step back. When trying to define terms like 'journalistic integrity', maybe we should bear in mind what big-thinker Immanuel Kant said about ethics: a moral deed is one that is rooted in a 'good will.' From that stance, if an publisher doesn't mean to deceive - if they act upon their ethical principles, which probably shun cover-ups - they could even be forgiven for publishing propaganda. They could certainly be said to have 'journalistic integrity.'

The big question, then: is that the same as 'real news'? Many would say no; 'real news', surely, is that which is true. But...if our society really has been won-over by the likes of Roland Barthes and his fellow postmodernists (which, it seems, a lot of people have), maybe we should actually be responding with a yes. After all, few nowadays would agree that any news can be more than a warped representation of objective truth (if the latter exists). The best things which can remain are merely good intentions. And that seems to be what constitutes 'the real' nowadays, at least when it comes to distinguishing 'real news' from 'fake'. It's why it's more appropriate to define 'real news' as being 'honest news' - that which has 'journalistic integrity'.

Be warned, therefore, all ye who add certain Google Chrome extensions or think Facebook should be rolling-out labels to help identify 'real news' - we might find less a sacrificial lamb and more a wolf in woolly clothes.

As we've seen, the hard question is defining 'fake', whilst the harder question is defining 'real'. It's less that it's difficult to pin-down and delete 'fake news', and more that anybody trying to create or name the 'real news' has their own motivations and outlooks (call them 'agendas' if you don't like what they are). If the arbiter is honest, they will inevitably stumble into fundamental contradictions; and if they're a large, essentially faceless corporation like Facebook, which is not just a media organisation but also many other things (principally a business floated on the stock market, run by a board of directors and operated for profit rather than public enrichment), we'll soon find a serious conflict of interests emerging if we want to see the high ideals of journalistic integrity embodied by such a platform. Imagine the power they could have over our thoughts were they to wield their capacity for censorship in earnest. It's already starting - from the above Chrome extensions to the exclusion of certain news sites from Facebook's advertising network.

What, then, can we do? As always, it's a difficult question. Facebook is all but destined to keep labeling 'real' and 'fake' if they want to keep their site usable. Human editors, algorithms, or any other kind of filter between users and the vast web of hundreds of people in our social spheres (as well as the many thousands who are one-friend-removed, not to mention the rest of the internet) are not only necessary, but will also continue to be necessarily burdened by the same problem: the omissions they have to make entail that people chasing 'real news' are always going to be unsatisfied. The latest notch on the critical thermostat wages war against fabricated facts. But giving any organisation, even by implication, the chance to slap the labels of 'real' and 'fake' upon our incoming data as a means to combat this will inevitably lead to that agent abusing such extensive powers - or at very least applying them with 'integrity' (that is, in an unbalanced way).

We can't leave the thinking up to other people. That only works to a certain extent; and it becomes dangerous if we surrender our scepticism entirely. We do need to see Facebook as a filter for the news; and it would be useful for them to label facts which are verified. But if third parties are then going further, starting to tell us what's broadly 'fake' and 'real', we should remember to disagree with them whenever we can. What's more (and it is disheartening to say this) if all we want through these most recent accusations toward Facebook is a coherent explanation for the upending of the norm embodied by the new President-elect, then fine - but we can't pin the blame on Facebook alone; just as we shouldn't allow any news outlet, real or fake by whoever's estimations, to claim purveyance of 'the' news.



James has a Bachelor’s degree in History and wrote his dissertation on beef and protest. His heroes list ranges from Adele to Noam Chomsky: inspirations he’ll be invoking next year when he begins a Master’s degree in London. Follow him @Songbird_James


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Facebook 'Fake News': A Scapegoat? Reviewed by James Stannard on Thursday, November 17, 2016 Rating: 5

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