In a news conference in Berlin with the German chancellor, Angela Merkel, President Obama assailed the proliferation of fake news sites on social media yesterday, highlighting the potential dangers to Democracy that they pose:
“Because in an age where there’s so much active misinformation and it’s packaged very well and it looks the same when you see it on a Facebook page or you turn on your television,” Mr. Obama said. “If everything seems to be the same and no distinctions are made, then we won’t know what to protect.”
Many are questioning how much fake news on Facebook was responsible for Donald Trump’s election victory. The New York Times and Buzzfeed seem to suggest that it could’ve had a profound effect:
In the three months before Election Day, the most popular stories produced by hoax sites and “hyperpartisan blogs” generated more engagement — likes, shares and comments — on Facebook than the most popular articles by major news websites, the analysis found.
Among the 20 most popular fake election stories identified by BuzzFeed, all but three favored Mr. Trump or denigrated Hillary Clinton.
The election, however, is over now and the bigger concern now going ahead is how Donald Trump may be able to use fake news sites to govern. The first big example of Trump benefiting from it came yesterday, when Donald Trump took credit for stopping Ford from moving a car manufacturing plant to Mexico.
The only thing is: Ford was never planning to move the factory in question to Mexico.
Several news outlets called Trump out on the lie, but as Obama notes, what’s the point if other sites are claiming that it’s true and, if on Facebook, readers can’t make the distinction between real news and fake news? We’re an increasingly polarized country that spends an increasing amount of time on Facebook, and readers are just as likely to share the story that supports their political view than the story that supports the truth.
Why is that dangerous? Jesse Singal illustrated exactly why in a lengthy tweet storm yesterday, but the long and short of it is this: Trump can say anything he wants, take credit for anything he wants, or blame someone else for anything he wants — as he did during the campaign — and on Facebook, where most people find their news, it will all be taken as gospel, because there will be a news story from, say, the Denver Guardian, to support it (the Denver Guardian is not a real newspaper).
It’s dangerous and insidious, and there is a very real prospect of Donald Trump using it to govern as President. He could use social media — where everyone finds their news — as his own, free propaganda machine.
The good news here is that there is an actual solution, and all it would require is Mark Zuckerberg and Facebook to put the interests of Democracy over their own self interests.