Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg frequently talks about making the world "more open and connected," but what if his service, used by roughly 170 million Americans every day, is having the exact opposite effect? New York Magazine posits this idea and takes it one step further, arguing that Zuckerberg's blind tech-utopianism created the perfect conditions for the national tragedy of president-elect Donald Trump.
"Donald Trump Won Because of Facebook," declares the headline.
The claim goes like this: The 2016 campaign saw a proliferation of fake news sites that readily confirmed all the lies spouted by Trump and the nuttier corners of the internet — that Hillary Clinton had a brain disease, that the Pope endorsed Trump, that Clinton bought $137 million worth of illegal weapons, and on and on. Many of these demonstrably fake "news" stories were not created by pro-Trump trolls or Vladimir Putin sympathizers, rather, as BuzzFeed reported last week, they were made by a bunch of teenagers in Macedonia. Those teenagers reportedly found that Facebook users would share the craziest conspiracy theories masquerading as news so long as the stories confirmed their pre-existing biases. And, surprise surprise, supporters of Donald Trump clicked "share" with gusto.
When 44 percent of adults in the US get their news from Facebook, this is the perfect recipe for a disaster like the one we saw Tuesday.
But why do this? Money, of course. The crazy bullshit would frequently go viral, driving click upon click to websites run by the teenagers. This in turn generated ad revenue. “Yes, the info in the blogs is bad, false, and misleading but the rationale is that ‘if it gets the people to click on it and engage, then use it,’ ” one such person running a US-focused fake news site told BuzzFeed.
To make matters worse, because of the way Facebook works, people exposed to these falsehoods are frequently not presented with countervailing — i.e. "true" — news. At a tech conference happening this week, The Verge reports moderator David Kirkpatrick asked Zuckerberg about a so-called "filter bubble" that may have prevented Trump supporters from seeing stories critical of their candidate. Zuckerberg was unsurprisingly dismissive.
“Personally I think the idea that fake news on Facebook, which is a very small amount of the content, influenced the election in any way — I think is a pretty crazy idea," Zuckerberg responded. "Voters make decisions based on their lived experience.”
However, as entrepreneur and tech blogger Anil Dash pointed out, the idea that Facebook content doesn't influence people's real-life actions runs counter to the company's entire business model. "Everyone who buys advertising should listen to Zuckerberg saying that Facebook is ineffective at influencing people," he tweeted today in response to Zuckerberg's claim.
Zuckerberg, meanwhile, continues to pass the buck — arguing that Facebook is a technology platform, not a media company — consequently implying that he and his trump-supporting board member don't have the same obligations as the media when it comes to fidelity to truth.
All of this poses the question: If Facebook really did give us president-elect Donald Trump, why aren't San Francisco protesters marching on Zuckerberg's Mission District home demanding that he drain the Facebook swamp of fake news? After all, unless actively fought, that garbage will still be with us come 2020.