US election results are out and for most of the world it is quite a shocker. That Donald J Trump would emerge victorious, was not an expected outcome. It has also been acknowledged that for most Americans this was a bitterly divided election. And while the post-election analysis will continue, the role of Facebook and Twitter and social media in general has come under scatching criticism and scrutiny for its role in this election.
Facebook’s ‘Fake News’ problem was something that even Obama acknowledged just days before the election. At a campaign in rally in Michigan, the now out-going US President had this to say, “The way campaigns have unfolded, we just start accepting crazy stuff as normal… As long as it is on Facebook, and people can see it, as long as it’s on social media, people start believing it, and it creates this dust cloud of nonsense.”
What Obama is referring to isn’t new. Facebook and fake news have been an issue for sometime now, and it is not isolated to the US. In India too, fake and unverified news articles with sensation claims will trend faster and for days. False news reports around how an FBI officer investigating Clinton’s emails had died, malicious reports about Clinton’s top aide Huma Abedin, claims of how 88 US generals were defying Hillary Clinton, and many more trended and were shared by users on the social network.
More disturbingly, a BuzzFeed News investigation had shown how over 140 pro-Trump websites with sensational political headlines were being run by teens in Macedonia, looking to make a quick buck by increasing engagement and readership on their websites.
And it is not just a Facebook problem. On Twitter, it was being claimed Pro-Hillary voters could do so via text, which was clearly false and misleading. Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey himself admitted they had no clue how they missed something so crucial.
In India too, we have seen fake, unverified stories trend on Facebook. When the JNU saga was unfolding, one of the first trends was ‘Shut down JNU.’ If you had no clue what this was about, you’d have been convinced that shutting down JNU was the only solution. More so another JNU student Umar Khalid was trending for days as a JEM terrorist sympathiser on Facebook; this when no official government agency had said anything of the sort. Pictures of Umar with captions like he is a terrorist, anti-India, etc were shared for many days, without any proof and Facebook didn’t take down the topic either.
Of course, in India, the best place for spreading rumours on social media is WhatsApp. I’m pretty sure everyone has gotten the latest message about the Rs 2,000 note with the miracle Nano-GPS chip. FYI, it is totally false. Then there were pictures shared of dead bodies of terrorists killed by the Indian Army in the recent surgical strikes. Except these pictures, shared judiciously on WhatsApp Groups across India, were not remotely connected with the surgical strikes. And these are just some recent examples. Daily messages claiming a miracle via a natural Indian cure for everything are an everyday part of family WhatsApp groups in India.
In light of the recent US elections, Facebook has itself denied that the News Feed played a devastating role in promoting fake news. Bloomberg quoted a Facebook spokesperson: “While Facebook played a part in this election, it was just one of the many ways people received their information – and was one of the many ways people connected with their leaders, engaged in the political process and shared their views.”
To some extent that’s true. Facebook and social media in general are just a source of news, but for a growing number of people these are the only sources. Homepage traffic is down across the world for websites, and this is true in India as well. People read more news shared by their friends on Facebook, rather than actually go to news websites.
But the problem is that Facebook’s 1 billion plus reach means fake news gets amplified a lot stronger than it would say with a traditional news media outlet. The more sensational a headline on Facebook, higher the clicks, likes and shares. And if you click on a lot of these, Facebook’s News Feed will feed you more of them. Your bias, your bubble, whichever side of the spectrum you might be leaning towards, is only going to get stronger, because the News Feed will show you more of what it thinks you want to see.
The fake news problem has also exacerbated since Facebook has no human editors looking at these trending topics anymore. It’s all based on an algorithm, ready to serve and validate people’s biases. There is no human judgement deciding which stories could be fake, damaging, libelous. And unless people start reporting them as false they will get shared, liked a whole lot more on the social network. The problem lies with relying on the wisdom of the crowds.
For every link you click on Facebook you are likely to be shown five other similar links below it. And don’t be surprised if at least one of these is from a news source you have not heard of before. Zuckerberg might insist Facebook is a tech company and not a media one, but the truth is that for a lot of people social media, be it Facebook or WhatsApp is now a source of news. And it seems that fake news has an edge on engagement.