Fake News, Facebook and the Future of Democracy

Whether we like it or not, social media has become the de facto voice of democracy.

 

And in many respects, this is a great thing. It gives voice and power to people who have neither and enables grass roots campaigns to pick up steam. It forces politicians to listen and in many cases, leads to positive social change. Take the Black Lives Matter movement which brought justice to the victims of racism or Bernie Sanders who

politically engaged a generation… #FeelTheBern. The fact is, none of this would’ve happened without Facebook.

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People cheer during a campaign rally for Democratic presidential candidate, Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., at The Family Arena Monday, March 14, 2016, in St. Charles, Mo. (AP Photo/Jeff Roberson)

I now have a confession to make.

As a journalism student of 3 years, I have never bought a national paper. Not because I can’t afford them (although the broads are very expensive) and not because I don’t read the news, I do – daily. But because I receive the news on Facebook. And the truth is, if online news didn’t exist, would I buy a daily newspaper? Probably not. In this sense, Facebook’s news services have helped to create a far more informed society than if they didn’t exist at all.

But with a total lack of editorial standards, Facebook – the world’s most popular news distributer, has become a breeding ground for misinformation and lies.

Nowhere was this more evident than the 2016 US presidential election. The leading candidates polarized a nation and once Donald Trump won the Republican nomination, anything seemed possible. Stories of pussy grabbing, prostitutes, popes and tax avoidance regularly entered the press and differentiating fact from fiction was near impossible.

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‘Fake News’ – Credit: The Independent
As the primary facilitator of ‘fake news’, many argue that Facebook had a social responsibility to act.

But the question still remained; do they simply block ‘fake news’, or enable it to fester?

Blocking, what is essentially free speech is a very slippery slope indeed; while, enabling it to fester could have greater consequences on society.

 

After months of protest and long after the election had been won, Facebook opted for the latter. Well, sort of.

In a bid to reduce the spread of false information, Facebook introduced a fact checking device which would supposedly flag up ‘disputed content’. The changes to the system would mean we’d still be able to read and share ‘false articles’, but our friends would be notified that the information was disputed.

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Facebook’s fact checker – Credit: @PrisonPlanet, Twitter

For many, this was progress. But for myself, by no means a solution. Indeed, the social network giant is at a crossroads. Either it continues to facilitate news articles and thereby adopts the same journalistic principles as any other major news outlet. Or, it discontinues news altogether.

I say this because Facebook may have started as a technology company, and Zuckerberg may still recognise it as such; but they have since become so much more. Facebook plays an active role in the shaping and characterisation of society and if law enforces are to refrain from intervention, it is essential that Facebook take responsibility for their actions. It is simply not acceptable to provide a platform for fake news and walk away.

In an increasingly media sceptic world, we (as journalists) need to be doing everything we can to restore trust in the industry. But this needs to start with Facebook.

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