Facebook and the rise of Newspeak

Big Brother, thy name is Facebook.

In George Orwell’s dystopian novel “1984,” Winston Smith’s job at the Ministry of Truth (Minitrue) is to revise/recast/retruth the past by rewriting old news stories so that they comport with the current ruling party’s version of the historical record. Smith’s job is to please the party’s leader, known as Big Brother, who may exist, or not. It doesn’t really matter, because the ruling party really cares only about one thing: maintaining power.

In “1984,” and many are saying right now in “2016,” facts aren’t facts and truth isn’t truth. That is, unless it aligns with the facts that the powers that be, or the powers that wannabe, and their supporters, deem are the facts.

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The problem with the recent election, some say, is that the American people seem to have given up on the facts. That’s a common theme in the post-election teeth gnashing among the media and political class. Fake news seems to have trumped real news. So somebody — SOMEBODY — has got to do something about it.

Enter Facebook CEO and social savior Mark ZuckerbergMark Elliot ZuckerbergWarren targets Facebook with ad claiming Zuckerberg supports Trump Key Democrat presses FTC over Facebook settlement's 'dangerous precedent' On The Money: Fed officials saw rising risk of recession | Ocasio-Cortez, Cruz blast NBA for 'outrageous' response to China | Prospects dim for trade breakthrough with China MORE, who did an about face on Thursday and announced that the company will now introduce new “tools” and enter into unprecedented third-party alliances to prevent fake news stories from spreading like a virus on the world’s largest communications eco-system.

In the U.S., many of Facebook’s 156 million monthly visitors use the platform as their primary news source. Indeed, most people now get their news from Facebook. That also largely holds true for its 1.8 billion users worldwide, approximately 85 percent of which live outside of North America. That includes those now-famous teenage Macedonian fake-news writers who gamed the social network to make some money playing with American minds during the election.

To help stamp out this fake-news contagion, Facebook announced it would work with third parties it considers credible in separating “the truth” from “truthiness.” Among those selected are the Associated Press, ABC News and “fact-checking” organizations.

But who are Zuckerberg and Facebook to say who the “fact checkers” will be? Who made them the truth cops?

First and foremost, we must remember that Zuckerberg is a businessman and he created Facebook to make money on people connecting with people. His job is to do that – not to save the world and democracy. Today Facebook’s market value is $347 billion. Its stock sits at $120.82 as of this writing. Zuckerberg is a gazillionaire.

Zuckerberg probably never envisioned Facebook would become the world’s dominant communications platform. Nor that it would be accused of being complicit in derailing the 2016 presidential election and undermining American democracy.

It was just a few weeks ago that Zuckerberg said it was “crazy” to think that fake news could have ginned the presidential election in Donald TrumpDonald John TrumpWHCA calls on Trump to denounce video depicting him shooting media outlets Video of fake Trump shooting members of media shown at his Miami resort: report Trump hits Fox News's Chris Wallace over Ukraine coverage MORE’s favor. But he has that business to protect and he heard the white noise. His recent conversion is due in large part to the intense public disgust, and hearing drumbeats that Facebook is now seen by a growing number of people as a vehicle that spreads toxic hatred and political contagion across the land. How many of your friends say they can’t even look at Facebook since the election?

Over the last few years Facebook has devolved from a feel-good place where people shared cat videos, food pictures and check-ins at The Q to the largest depository and disseminator of hate and vitriol on the planet. Zuckerberg’s creation is no longer a social network — it has metamorphosed into a mind-numbing contagion that afflicts various segments of the American public with differing degrees of malignancy. As we have been repeatedly told, lower education levels contribute to this disease.

But Zuckerberg’s announcement about cracking down on fake news is like putting a Band-Aid on a gaping wound and jumping into a septic pool. It’s symbolic Orwellian PR “doublethink” that is meant to make some people believe that fake news can actually be controlled when any idiot knows that it is impossible to do.

The sheer volume of information on Facebook makes Zuckerberg’s announced plan seem silly. And who decides what is fake news? Is satire fake news? Is everything WikiLeaks fake news? Is TV news fake news? Many think so. How about everything Donald Trump says? (We’ve crossed that Rubicon.) Or everything Kanye West says? Where does fake news begin and where does it end? Do we fact check every video posted on Facebook? What about the claims made in Facebook ads?

Disruptive technologies actually do disrupt. Over the last several decades America’s Fourth Estate has been decimated by disruption. In many major cities newspapers are shells, two-thirds of our journalists have been put on the street. Without a strong press, as our Founding Fathers knew, our democracy would be in peril.

Orwell coined the expression “Newspeak.” Today, our cable-TV networks — Fox News, CNN, MSNBC – and our legacy networks – ABC, NBC, CBS – provide their own daily versions of “Newspeak,” something that is produced to try to make us believe is “real news” but is just another form of reality show. And that’s something Trump knows how to produce.

One meme of the recent election is that we are now living in a post-fact world. Or, as the saying goes, if you repeat a lie often enough, people believe it’s true. Ask the Nazis.

There is no cure for fake news, just like there is no cure for baldness. A few Facebook tools, some fact-checkers or an algorithm won’t do a thing. Mark Zuckerberg can’t stop fake news, but he can say he’ll try in order to take some heat off of his company. And what about Twitter? And everything else Internet?

In “Mila 18,” Leon Uris’s classic novel about the rise of Hitler and the Nazis, the fall of Poland, and the Warsaw Ghetto, a despondent journalist covering the events says, “I have learned now that truth is not truth. Truth is only what people want to believe and nothing more.”

That’s the way some say it is today. Let’s hope that’s not the way of the future.

David Eden writes about media and politics.


The views expressed by contributors are their own and not the views of The Hill.