By George Goldman
In the aftermath of the 2016 election, news surfaced that Russian companies bought thousands of Facebook advertisements to disseminate misinformation, foment distrust, and exploit division. Such ads, in the form of posts shared by Russian “bots”, reached 126 million Americans in the months leading up to Donald Trump’s victory. Techno-skeptics wary of social media’s impact on society accused Facebook of negligence and blamed the platform twofold. Firstly, Facebook came under fire for complicity in a foreign power’s influencing of an election. Secondly, Facebook was criticized for reinforcing ideological echo chambers and exacerbating political polarization. Some, however, interpreted the Russian interference and spread of fake news stories through an opposite lens.
Instead of Facebook playing the reckless actor responsible for exploiting social fissures and sowing illegitimacy in the democratic process, some assert that the prevailing divisiveness, destructive partisanship, and adoration for spectacle ailing American society merely imprinted itself onto the surface of Facebook’s platform. Or, as one New York Times Op-Ed put it Facebook is “just a mirror, reflecting us.”
If Facebook is indeed a mirror, it has shattered spectacularly. Facebook Chairman and CEO Mark Zuckerberg, in light of the fact that his company had become the world’s most powerful news distributor, declared in 2014 that the social network’s distinctive News Feed was to be transformed into “a perfect, personalized newspaper.”
To achieve this, Facebook analyzed user preferences–indicated by engagement with posts, articles, and videos–to guide what one sees on their feeds. The company’s notorious News Feed algorithm, an invisible force that selects the content on our feeds and orders it, should spit out information to neatly mirror our tastes and political preferences. But that is not what is happening. Rather, our feeds have been inundated with content awarded to the highest bidders within Facebook’s ad-driven profit structure. Companies bid for ads to promote content in front of Facebook’s 2.1 billion monthly users, and Facebook nets a profit. One such bidder, “The Internet Research Agency”–a Kremlin linked, private Russian company–bought more than $100,000 worth of advertisements which focused on sowing distrust and polarization in the American electorate leading up to the election.
Put simply, Facebook’s algorithm not only feeds users content they are likely to engage with through likes and comments, but it also promotes content paid for by private companies specifically targeting political communities. Others exploited the vulnerabilities of the News Feed algorithm and Facebook’s profit motive as well. 100 teens posting from Macedonia, for example, packaged and deployed fake news stories such as the infamous “Pope Francis shocks the world, endorses Donald Trump for president,” which was shared by hundreds of thousands of users. Zuckerberg’s vision of the “perfect, personalized newspaper” never came to fruition.
Earlier this year, Mark Zuckerberg unveiled a new strategy to shift priority of the News Feed to include content posted by friends and family instead of private companies and institutional journalism. So much for the “perfect, personalized newspaper.” With this updated algorithm, Facebook users cannot only expect to encounter significantly fewer posts reflecting the divisive, often false content best exemplified by the Russian misinformation campaign, but also less content from traditional news outlets. This means, however, that the 45% of U.S. adults who regularly turned to Facebook for news will encounter less, well, news. When one considers that Facebook is the largest, most influential purveyor of news in the country, this seems to be a serious problem.
To grasp Facebook’s stranglehold on the news business, consider that the New York Times’ boasts a circulation of just over 571,000 and a digital subscriber base of 2.3 million Americans, which means that Facebook has more than 70 times the influence on what news is read than “The Paper of Record.” Quite simply, Facebook has an incredible amount of sway over the news that Americans consume. Now that Facebook intends to alter its algorithms towards content posted by friends and family, friends and family are to increasingly become more powerful distributors of news. In effect, unless your friends and family often post work from institutions such as The New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, and The Atlantic–all publications with sound reputations for accuracy and objectivity– their work will appear less in News Feeds across the internet. Articles, videos, and photos from clickbait sources like The Odyssey and NowThis will likely replace that quality journalism. Of course, you will also be exposed to more personal posts and statuses from your friends and family.
This change is valuable for the increase in human interactions with the people that Facebook users care about, but the shift from promoting articles from respected newspapers and magazines towards content shared by friends and family poses a real danger. When judging news for quality and legitimacy, consumers tend to have a bias for that which they have commonly seen, regardless of the story’s accuracy. Moreover, recent studies have shown that fake news has a near-zero effect on changing readers’ political opinions. Despite the apparent lack of direct influence of voters’ preferences, misinformation and false stories do wield a power that has the potential to undermine the debate of ideas in our democracy. This power is one of exposure. The mere exposure to loads of fake news stories has a chilling effect on the standards of journalism and the tenor of national debates. Thus, the sort of news that one encounters the most becomes the standard for what ideas are acceptable, rational, and up for serious political debate. Prior to the public’s gradual accommodation to a media environment saturated with false reporting, no one would have ever imagined conspiracy theorist Alex Jones being granted a prime time interview on NBC or reporters from Breitbart news making regular appearances on CNN.
Joseph P. Overton, a former think tank administrator, coined an idea now popularly remembered as the “Overton window.” It compares the range of ideas that a society will accept as up for debate to a window–a sweet spot, if you will–within which normalized political discourse plays out. The issue of gay marriage demonstrates the power of the Overton window. In the year 2001, only 35% of Americans supported the issue, yet in 2015–the year that the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in favor of gay marriage in the landmark case Obergefell v. Hodges–the support skyrocket to 55%. In the writ for the case, the Court makes the argument that over time the issue of gay marriage was slowly enveloped into normal discourse, allowing it to enter the Overton window and gain political viability in the eyes of Americans and political institutions:
“Well into the 20th century, many States condemned same-sex intimacy as immoral, and homosexuality was treated as an illness. Later in the century, cultural and political developments allowed same-sex couples to lead more open and public lives. Extensive public and private dialogue followed, along with shifts in public attitudes. Questions about the legal treatment of gays and lesbians soon reached the courts, where they could be discussed in the formal discourse of the law.”
Clearly, the “Extensive public and private dialogue” brought the issue of gay marriage into the Overton window and subsequently enabled the public’s gradual change in attitudes. After all, an issue that is not talked about because its evocation violates social mores and taboos, as gay marriage once did, cannot be addressed in discourse, and therefore normal politics.
Facebook’s updated News Feed policy threatens to break the Overton window in an unprecedented way. Exposure to fake news stories very often occurs through posts that are shared by friends and family, because such gripping false narratives create sensationalism that is widely shared in a way that sober headlines are not. If the Facebook News Feed is to contain more posts from friends and families, the logical conclusion is that exposure to fake news will increase, and further push the Overton window towards accepting sensationalism, conspiracy, and downright false journalism. Facebook claims that such a move will boost the rate of meaningful interactions between users while democratizing the spread of news.
What is more likely to occur, however, is the further breakdown of a shared political reality. When posts by The Denver Guardian–a fake news website–are shared by your uncle, high school friend, or neighbor, Facebook makes no effort to alert a potential reader of the falsehoods that lie ahead. Nor does it provide any distinction to articles from sources like The Wall Street Journal or New York Times that indicate the source’s general trustworthiness. When Facebook claims to be an impartial forum, it lies. By failing to responsibly take on the mantle of the world’s most important news distributor, Facebook has let the propagation of despicably poor journalism run over respected publications.
With every fake news post that Facebook considers an opportunity for “meaningful interactions” with a family member of friend, the Overton window cracks a bit more as the ridiculous, ludicrous, and patently false creep into the sphere of normalized discourse. With a tidal wave of fake news entering hundreds of millions of news feeds, readers are conditioned to yawn at lies, deception, and twisted rhetoric, and shrug their shoulders to objective truth, journalistic integrity, and nuanced arguments. Anyone who cares about reasoned political debate ought to flee the shattered mirror and broken window that is Facebook. Mark Zuckerberg’s attempts to assuage the concerns of Facebook users have failed. Facebook is beholden to its shareholders before any democratic principle.