In the aftermath of the presidential election the U.S. media is awash in soul searching, hand wringing and finger pointing. They have a lot to think about.
To begin with there are the polls, many of which are sponsored by, if not actually produced by, media organizations. In this so-called age of data journalism, it seems their data sucked. How could they have been so unanimously wrong? Do they all poll the same people using the same methodology?
More important is the fact that the result of this election can only lead to the conclusion that the influence of the media, and specifically newspapers, has dropped off as fast as their circulation and advertising revenue. Has there ever been an election where the endorsements were so one sided? I can’t think of any. The only reasonable sized daily I know of that backed Trump is the Las Vegas paper owned by Sheldon Adelson, one of the primary financiers of the far right.
New York Magazine, among many others, offered this answer: “Donald Trump Won Because of Facebook.” The author, Max Reed, pointed to “the social network’s wholesale acquisition of the traditional functions of news media,” adding, “The most obvious way in which Facebook enabled a Trump victory has been its inability (or refusal) to address the problem of hoax or fake news.”
Reed cited a pre-election story in Buzzfeed about “How Teens in the Balkans Are Duping Trump Supporters with Fake News.” According to Buzzfeed there were more than 100 pro-Trump web sites that could be traced to Macedonia. Their creators could not have cared less who won the election, but they seized on an opportunity to make some cash.
One example the Buzzfeed authors described was the site Worldpoliticus.com. It ran a story with the headline “Your Prayers Have Been Answered” which claimed that FBI sources indicated that Clinton would be indicted next year based on her emails. That completely fictitious story generated 140,000 shares, reactions and comments on Facebook, according to Buzzfeed. Now, consider that almost all digital advertising is done programmaticly with the advertiser often having little control over or knowledge of where their ad will appear. When a story generates that amount of traffic, ads get placed on the site, and the hoaxsters cash in.
While it was not a direct response to the New York story, another headline caught my eye at the same time. Mike Masnick’s piece in TechDirt carried the not-so-subtle title “If You’re Blaming Facebook for the Election Results, You’re an Idiot.” Masnick offered the now familiar argument, “This was a ‘throw the bums out’ vote, and many of the bums deserved to be thrown out. That they voted in someone likely to be worse (especially given who he’s surrounded himself with so far) wasn’t the point.”
So what does Mark Zuckerberg have to say about all this? Two days after the election Zuckerberg made an appearance at the Techonomy 16 conference in California where he was interviewed by David Kirkpatrick of Techonomy, who is also the author of the book The Facebook Effect. Zuckerberg dismissed the notion that fake news on Facebook was a deciding factor in the election. He said 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. If you believe that you haven’t internalized the message the Trump supporters are trying to send in this election.”
Zuckerberg suggested that you get a more diverse range of news on Facebook than you would get on any of the three TV news stations. This is because company research shows “almost everyone has friends on the other side.” But he also commented that while Facebook users are presented with posts reflecting a different view of the world, they rarely click on these posts.
Zuckerberg described the Facebook news feed as a work in progress, something that will continue to evolve. He noted that it was originally configured primarily to address the more common usage of the service, sharing updates and photos with family and friends. Facebook’s goal is “to reflect what people want” and he promised “we’ll keep improving it.” One of the things Facebook users want is a safe community and that involves eliminating bullying and hate speech. But he acknowledged that when comments that might otherwise be considered hate speech are uttered by “the president-elect of the United States who has 60 million followers” those comments become “mainstream political discourse.” On thing he didn’t address is what about the people who might make the same hateful comments but who don’t have millions of followers. Facebook’s mission, per Zuckerberg, is “to give people a voice.An consider that Facebook tries to do this with algorithms rather than human beings. Good luck Mark.
Zuckerberg’s comments do pretty accurately reflect my experience on Facebook. I do in fact have a few ‘friends’ who supported Trump. I saw and read their posts but rarely clicked on the links they provided. I think most of my friends who backed Trump at least cast a wary eye toward fake news. (The pope endorsed Donald Trump? Seriously?) But I did see a couple get shared.
This whole election cycle has made clear how we live in a substantially segregated country that is widely divided. Neither digital media nor its more traditional predecessor seem poised to improve that. All signs are that it will only polarize us further.
(The Zuckerberg interview at Techonomy 16 is available on Livestream.)