"The most efficient distributor of misinformation in human history.” Facebook's logo reflected in a pair of glasses. Credit: Dominic Lipinski/PA Wire/PA Images. All rights reserved.There has been a lot written since the election of Donald Trump about the problem with Facebook and democracy. Max Read probably put it most succinctly when he wrote that Facebook had become “the most efficient distributor of misinformation in human history.” Joshua Benton of Nieman Lab said “Facebook has become a sewer of misinformation”. Timothy Lee at Vox wrote that Facebook’s algorithm was “steering people to sensational, one-sided, or just plain inaccurate stories.” Similar pieces were published at Bloomberg, The Intercept, and TechCrunch. Facebook is certainly proving to be a remarkably effective way of incentivising and distributing false, partisan, emotive, discriminatory and outrageous news — as Craig Silverman has done a tremendous job of showing. Silverman, and his colleagues at Buzzfeed, exposed the story of the young Macedonians producing Trump stories to order; the falsification of a racist attack; and the origins of an invented “conspiracy theory about the Clintons and other government figures being involved in a global human trafficking and pedophilia ring.” At the same time it has become apparent that huge numbers of people — and not just in America — are getting news from their Facebook feed. A Pew Research study found that 44% of Americans get the news from Facebook. The 2016 Reuters Institute Digital News report found that, across 26 countries, 51% of people regularly get their news from social media — the majority of this from Facebook. For 28% of 18–24 year olds, social media is their main source of news.Facebook is certainly proving to be a remarkably effective way of incentivising and distributing false, partisan, emotive, discriminatory and outrageous news But would so many people be getting so much of their news from their Facebook feed if the BBC, the New York Times, and other reputable news services had not chosen to distribute so much of their content via the platform? 18 months ago Facebook announced that it was introducing Facebook Instant Articles. Instant Articles, it said, would allow news publishers to put their content directly into Facebook so that it loaded faster in people’s newsfeeds and meant they did not have to click out of Facebook in order to read it. The first wave of news publishers to sign up included the New York Times, the BBC, the Guardian, The Atlantic, NBC News, Buzzfeed and Spiegel Online. Once they said they would be doing it, it was harder for other smaller or lesser known news publishers not to. Soon Facebook had opened Instant Articles to “all publishers, of any type, anywhere in the world”. At the time I wrote about how surprised I was that news publishers were doing this. Despite the benefits of convenience, speed and visibility, it looked like it could be a serious mistake for news publishers in the long term. They could not only lose what digital brand association their content still has, but also surrender a large degree of control over editorial, engagement, agenda, and usage data. The publishers were effectively handing enormous amounts of power to Facebook, to determine not just the format of their content, but its prioritisation in the newsfeed, its distribution, its metrics — even the decision as to whether to publish at all (for example over the Napalm girl controversy). It’s turned out worse for both publishers and public. Yes, articles and videos from NYT and the BBC loaded faster in the newsfeed and could be consumed more easily, but so could ‘news’ articles and videos from every other publisher — including those who did not care about accuracy or evidence or ethics. All some cared about were views, shares and engagement. Moreover, there was — and is — very little to distinguish a BBC article/video from one published by Eagle Rising or FreedomDaily. From the perspective of the Facebook user both were news articles, and should therefore be judged equivalently.
If you look at research — even from 2 or 3 years ago — it showed that Facebook users spend as much time, and are as likely to share, news from alternative news sources (including fake news) as they are news from reputable sources.
The most reputable news organisations in the world partnered with Facebook to help raise the status and profile of junk The result of the BBC, the New York Times and others adding their content to Facebook’s platform was threefold. First, it increased the number of people who relied on Facebook’s news feed for their news. It also enhanced the credibility of Facebook as a news distributor. And, it enhanced the credibility of other ‘news’ services that also chose to use Instant Articles. News services like ETF News and WorldPoliticus.com. In other words, the most reputable news organisations in the world partnered with Facebook to help raise the status and profile of junk.
Yes, it was Facebook’s decision to give equivalent status to the New York Times and WorldPoliticus, but it was the decision of reputable news organisations to jump on board Facebook Instant Articles, and to broadcast live through Facebook, and to use Facebook as a major distribution platform.
Is it too late to reverse it? Maybe. And the power to change the newsfeed lies with Facebook. But there are things these news publishers could do. They could stop loading content straight onto Facebook’s platform via Instant Articles. They could stop using Facebook as one of their main means of distribution. And they could start figuring out how better to reach people in a way that demonstrates the provenance and credibility of their journalism.
Otherwise they won’t just be undermining their own authority, they will be colluding in the mass distribution of misinformation.