The Facebook President: fact trumps fiction

Did Facebook really turn Hillary Clinton from POTUS 45 into Al Gore 2016?

Zeena Feldman Sumedh Shastri
1 December 2016



First ever NASA Reddit Ask Me Anything from space. Flickr/NASA> Some rights reserved.

Keynes once said ‘When my information changes, I alter my conclusions. What do you do, sir?’ In today’s world of post-truth politics and self-made echo chambers, the likely response is ‘There’s nothing wrong with my information’. The likely response is one of defensive righteousness. Or a rude gesture.

We are all apt to occupy entrenched positions at one time or another, but never has this seemed as easy or rewarding as in our social media age. Digital platforms have sold us the illusion that if a claim doesn’t conform to our existing worldview, then that claim doesn’t exist – it is not real. As the conceptual categories of ‘us’ and ‘them’ become standard terms of engagement, populism and xenophobia emerge as the hallmarks of political discourse.

Following the Brexit referendum results, and now Donald Trump’s electoral victory, the ‘losers’ among us are looking for answers. How did it all go so wrong? And who is to blame? It is in this context that we need to understand the current Facebook witch hunt. Social media platforms have reminded us that the boundary between fact and fiction is rarely as clear as we might wish it to be. Likewise, these platforms reveal the paradoxes and limits of user-generated content. On the one hand, everyone can be a broadcaster. On the other hand, this ‘democratic’ participation supports a business model for which veracity is not a meaningful – or even relevant – metric. Content is content is content, truth be damned.

The ink covering the 2016 US presidential election has hardly been spilled, but in many ways this unusual cycle was not that unusual. It was a traditional two party race, where the Republican voters were whiter and wealthier than the Democrats. Men leaned towards Trump, just as historically, men leaned Republican. And as in the past, university educated whites favoured the Republican candidate while those with postgraduate degrees supported the Democratic nominee. Same old, same old.

Consistencies in voter behaviour link to consistencies in political ideology and mood. The US has long been divided on the question of what government is for. This election – like Brexit – tapped into the identity politics and protectionist impulses that have increasingly framed that question. As the conceptual categories of ‘us’ and ‘them’ become standard terms of engagement, populism and xenophobia emerge as the hallmarks of political discourse. And with a highly divided electorate and narrow margins comes much soul searching into how things got this bad.

Enter Facebook. Trump’s victory – unforeseen by the vast majority of media outlets, pollsters and bookmakers – has given momentum to the idea that social media has come of age as a deciding factor in elections. But did Facebook really turn Hillary Clinton from POTUS 45 into Al Gore 2016?

Mark Zuckerberg claims that Facebook is a technology firm, not a media company. Yet the suggestion that the platform is merely a conduit for others’ content belies the level of editorial control and censorship the company exerts. Consider, for example, the international outcry that followed Facebook’s deletion of the iconic (and Pulitzer Prize-winning) photo of the napalm girl. And what to make of the human editors – since replaced by an algorithm – who curated the site’s Trending News section? How about the company’s ‘mistaken’ blocking of several Palestinian journalists’ accounts? Or that the site twice removed a photo of a Swedish burn victim posted in celebration of his 60th birthday? How about the company’s ‘mistaken’ blocking of several Palestinian journalists’ accounts?

Media companies make editorial decisions. Just like Facebook does. To that end, the Pew Research Center finds that the majority of Americans – some 62% – get their news from social media. 70% of all Reddit users use that site as a news source. That’s Reddit, home of the infamous Trump forum that has given us countless post-fact gems, from Hillary Clinton’s alleged anti-Semitism to semantic defenses of the Donald’s ‘Mexicans are rapists’ line (their, not they’re). It was also recently revealed that Reddit’s CEO was editing derisive comments to appear as if they were directed at someone else – a particularly troubling move by a site that has public figures doing verified Q&As.

Fake news has become a post-election buzzword. But evidence suggests this phenomenon is not so much an outgrowth of ideological commitments as it is of market incentives. Traditional media’s advertising revenues have fallen off a cliff with digital ad income covering only a fraction of the loss. This has driven the growth of Pay Per Click (‘clickbait’) articles, accentuated the importance of search engine optimisation and fed the rise of targeted advertising and its offshoot, targeted news. Make no mistake, the internet will be monetised.

Actually, the internet was monetised long ago. Perhaps it’s just that Trump’s victory brought this reality to the fore in an uncomfortably political and transparent way. In recent weeks we have learned there is lots of money to be made from ‘fake news’. In Macedonia, for instance, Buzzfeed found a group of young men earning up to $3,000 a day from posting fabricated pro-Trump headlines on Facebook. In Macedonia, for instance, Buzzfeed found a group of young men earning up to $3,000 a day from posting fabricated pro-Trump headlines on Facebook. These content creators did not care about American politics or support Trump’s policy positions – they just happened upon a profitable formula. By Facebook’s own account, its US-based users are worth four times as much as users elsewhere, and these Macedonians soon discovered that ‘nothing performed as well on Facebook as Trump content’.

Enough of the internet blame game

So what’s to be done? Perhaps first – before the vague and alarmist calls for regulation – we ought to recall that tensions between censorship, information accuracy and profit-seeking are not new. They have been around since at least the eighteenth century, with the rise of the commercial press.

But what makes our current moment feel particularly perilous is not just that facts no longer seem to matter but that the focus on (the dangers and promises of) user-generated content obscures the deficits of representative democracy. The ability to ‘share’ anything has furnished illusions of citizen power. And this illusion easily doubles as distraction from the task of holding those in formal positions of authority to account. This goes both for our elected officials and big media owners – Donald, Rupert and Mark. The focus on (the dangers and promises of) user-generated content obscures the deficits of representative democracy.

Second, let us consider how projects to update international law in accordance with the digital era articulate these issues ­– particularly relevant for societies dependent on internet-based news and views. In Article Five of the Charter of Human Rights and Principles for the Internet, the Internet Rights and Principles Coalition spells out the intimate connection between freedom of expression and information in this case. Nowhere does it mention the accuracy of that information, and perhaps for good reason: who would decide what constitutes accurate? But this highlights a paradox of our social media age: with access to information reaching unprecedented heights, the need for information literacy and critical reasoning faculties has never been greater. To misquote Bertrand Russell, people will accept the flimsiest of evidence when it supports their existing views and endlessly nitpick facts contrary to their opinions. And he hadn’t even heard of Twitter.

This is not to suggest that freedom of expression should be curbed. Article 19 of the United Declaration of Human Rights makes clear that ‘Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers’. Everyone, in other words, has the right to be wrong and to share their incorrect views.

Yet the UN General Assembly adopted the UDHR in 1948 – a time when traditional media companies still controlled the reins of the public record. Back then, people relied on others to fact-check on their behalf. In today’s media landscape, that onus has shifted to the user – the user as gatekeeper, as content producer, as audience commodity; the user as judge and jury, prosecution and defence. Who would decide what constitutes accurate?

Fake news happens online, yes. But it also happens offline. Remember Rolling Stone’s now redacted ‘A Rape on Campus’ story? Or Jayson Blair’s fabricated reportage for the New York Times? Back in 1835, we even had the Great Moon Hoax – a series of phony articles about life on the Moon. Lies are not a digital phenomenon.

Where does it leave us in now that the US elections are over? As political subjects, we would do well to shift our attention away from the internet blame game. Such scapegoating may feel good but it obscures important on-the-ground realities: the right’s continued success in courting the working class; the growing tide against free trade; the enthusiasm gap (and not only in America). With Trump’s victory, there are further considerations: for instance, FBI director Comey’s last minute interference; punitive voter ID laws; endemic mistrust of career politicians. Perhaps if mainstream media outlets had been less dismissive of people’s malcontent, the pro-Trump surge in key counties would have come as less of a shock.

With Trump’s surprise win, we didn’t experience Brexit 2. Not entirely. The polls were correct insofar as predicting Clinton’s triumph in the popular vote. She won that by more than 2 million ballots. But in the US presidential race – governed by the antiquated Electoral College system – the voice of the people can matter little beyond bolstering a divisive moral high ground.

In the US, a king (sic) is elected every four years and in between the electorate is governed by elites. The virtuosity of Trump’s campaign was that it branded a billionaire an outsider and a hero of the alienated masses. Post-truth branding at its finest. Facebook was just another instrument in the toolbox.

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