The Sept. 11 attacks were an inside job, 250,000 Syrian refugees are currently being housed on the Navajo Indian Reservation and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton organized a hit on an FBI agent who was investigating her.
According to my Facebook news feed, all of this — and more — is true. And over this past year, the outcry became increasingly loud calling for Facebook to police these journalistic vagabonds.
Facebook should not give in.
In general, social media platforms — and Facebook in particular — are a poor method for sharing news stories. They are crowded communicative spaces: your aunt’s cat is sick, your cousin just had a baby, your ex just changed their relationship status to “looking to explore” and WTOE 5 News reports that Pope Francis just endorsed Donald Trump?
When news creeps into your news feed, your personal space is bombarded with information. But Facebook was never meant to be a standard-bearer for truth. The company avoids this by offering an operational definition in its mission statement, “People use Facebook to stay connected with friends and family, to discover what’s going on in the world, and to share and express what matters to them.”
This says nothing about producing a reliable news feed; in fact, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg explicitly said in August, “We are a tech company, not a media company.”
The part of the mission statement that is relevant to the fake news scandals: “People use Facebook … to discover what’s going on in the world.” But this says nothing of any obligation to regulate the experience of discovery. As far as making the world more open, regulating fake news would accomplish the opposite.
On the front of political regulation, the Republican response to fake news, that an invisible hand — the demand of consumers — will somehow massage away yet another malady, is farcical. Any response calling for regulation of fake news on Facebook is right of heart but wrongheaded. The obligation to scrutinize, to assume that Facebook does not function as a news agency, lies on the consumer.
Obvious problems with fact-checking aside, social media itself can take on the guise of news. The obvious, well-documented culprit is “Fake News,” which has drawn a significant amount of ire in past months. Of course, the U.S. Congress does not have the technical wherewithal or authority to properly regulate sites like Facebook to eliminate fake news.
What would be so wrong if Facebook would only display well-established news sources like the Wall Street Journal or The New York Times — and what would be so wrong if we policed ourselves on Facebook to only read stories from legitimate sources? The problem is that Facebook is simply not built for news, even when consumed responsibly.
People consume news from Facebook differently; according to Pew Research, visitors who accessed an article from a news site spent three times as long reading each article compared to readers who found the article on Facebook. The lower engagement with news articles by Facebook users has massive implications for the type of consumption that occurs on social media, calling into question the ability of readers to properly ingest news even from legitimate sources.
Yes, fake news contributes to a misinformed public, which precludes the ability of a society to rationally govern — but so do advertisements and Saturday morning cartoons. Ultimately, it is the responsibility of the consumer to determine which news sources are legitimate and which merely exploit the gullibility of their audience.
Zach Kosbie is a sophomore in the School of Foreign Service.
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