Fake news, free speech, and Facebook's responsibility in the digital age

In the fallout of last week’s unexpected election result, Facebook is getting heat for supposedly facilitating Donald TrumpDonald John TrumpMichelle Obama says not always easy to live up to "we go high" Georgia certifies elections results in bitterly fought governor's race Trump defends border deployment amid fresh scrutiny MORE’s shocking victory.

Earlier this year, Facebook’s “Trending Topics” news feed garnered negative press for supposedly suppressing pro-conservative stories.

Now the hue and cry dominating headlines is that the company didn’t suppress enough news stories of a conservative bent. It’s no longer conservative circles calling for Mark Zuckerberg’s head. Now, it’s the left that is outraged.

Damned if they do. Damned if they don’t.

Excising even the most “obviously false” news from our feeds isn’t an easy task. A recent article discussed a supposed solution developed by college students — an algorithm that serves to verify the “authenticity” of stories.

Their chrome plug-in supposedly authenticates the “facts,” and then lists the posted article as “verified” or “not verified.” I gave it a try.

The overwhelming majority of posts in my feed — easily nine out of 10 — lacked any verification whatsoever. Included in that number were all the posts I assumed were playing loose with the truth.

The challenge, as the students correctly noted, lies in “building an AI that knows the difference between a fact and an opinion so that we do not flag opinions as false, since only facts can be false.”

The posts I saw that were actually listed as “verified” were all either op-eds or advertisements. Vox, Wired, LinkedIn, the ACLU, the Weekly Standard, Bloomberg, the Wall Street Journal, and … the Onion. Verified articles included those with titles like “Paul RyanPaul Davis RyanCalif. congresswoman-elect bumps into Pelosi at airport How this year’s freshmen can save the Congress — and themselves Democrat Katie Porter unseats GOP's Mimi Walters MORE Plans to Starve Unemployed Americans with $23 Billion Food Stamp Cut,” “Don't take candy from strangers and never take foreign policy advice from neocons,” and “Study confirms that giving away ‘I voted today’ burger increases voter turnout better than a sticker.” Color me skeptical, but it seems like we’re a long way from a viable truth-detecting algorithm.

It is an unfortunate reality that we have always had extremely partisan and fact-light media. We have not, however, always had a free and open press, nor a society rich in free and plentiful information.

That is the great blessing of the digital age. Where once there were many gatekeepers to knowledge, now there are few. The true beauty of free speech — the marketplace of ideas — is that inevitably the inaccuracies are outmatched by the facts. A world of information abundance gets us closer to the ideal.

A world of editors, gatekeepers, and opinions organized by subjective technocratic fiat, pushes us further away.

I have many friends on Facebook. Their political perspectives range from far-left revolutionary Marxists to evangelical social conservatives.

They represent the widest swath of racial and ethnic demographics — men and women, young and old, close family, and distant acquaintances. Some are religious, some vehemently atheistic. I click on their posts. I read their comments. I see their perspectives on a daily, hourly, minute-by-minute basis.  

Other people’s feeds look much different — perhaps much more insulated. Countering misleading information begins not with curators, but by a recognition of the boundaries of our own echo chambers. We need more information, more speech, and more dissemination of differing opinions. That means taking it upon ourselves to pop our online bubbles.

Frank Bruni aptly characterized the “mirror effect” in a New York Times column: “When it comes to elevating one perspective above all others and herding people into culturally and ideologically inflexible tribes, nothing that Facebook does to us comes close to what we do to ourselves.”

Our online lives are a reflection of ourselves, and just as in real life we sculpt our own comfortable bubbles of insularity, reinforcing our ideological priors and confirming our biases. Even online, we cannot escape the primitive, tribal instincts that have guided humanity since our hunter-gatherer days. We shouldn’t be surprised, therefore, when cyberspace becomes a reflection of meatspace.

The trouble, as the German sociologist Oswald Spengler saw it, lies within each of us. “Formerly no one was allowed to think freely,” he said. “Now it is permitted, but no one is capable of it any more. Now people want to think only what they are supposed to want to think, and this they consider freedom.”

A free society cannot tolerate a Ministry of Truth, whether in the world of atoms or the world of bits.

Ryan Hagemann is the technology and civil liberties analyst at the libertarian Niskanen Center. His research specialties include the issues at the intersection of sociology, economics, and technology.


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