[Marxism] Mark Zuckerberg Is in Denial

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Tue Nov 15 12:20:06 MST 2016


NY Times, November 15, 2016
Mark Zuckerberg Is in Denial
by Zeynep Tufekci

CHAPEL HILL, N.C. — Donald J. Trump’s supporters were probably heartened 
in September, when, according to an article shared nearly a million 
times on Facebook, the candidate received an endorsement from Pope 
Francis. Their opinions on Hillary Clinton may have soured even further 
after reading a Denver Guardian article that also spread widely on 
Facebook, which reported days before the election that an F.B.I. agent 
suspected of involvement in leaking Mrs. Clinton’s emails was found dead 
in an apparent murder-suicide.

There is just one problem with these articles: They were completely fake.

The pope, a vociferous advocate for refugees, never endorsed anyone. The 
Denver Guardian doesn’t exist. Yet thanks to Facebook, both of these 
articles were seen by potentially millions of people. Although 
corrections also circulated on the social network, they barely 
registered compared with the reach of the original fabrications.

This is not an anomaly: I encountered thousands of such fake stories 
last year on social media — and so did American voters, 44 percent of 
whom use Facebook to get news.

Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook’s chief, believes that it is “a pretty crazy 
idea” that “fake news on Facebook, which is a very small amount of 
content, influenced the election in any way.” In holding fast to the 
claim that his company has little effect on how people make up their 
minds, Mr. Zuckerberg is doing real damage to American democracy — and 
to the world.

He is also contradicting Facebook’s own research.

In 2010, researchers working with Facebook conducted an experiment on 61 
million users in the United States right before the midterm elections. 
One group was shown a “go vote” message as a plain box, while another 
group saw the same message with a tiny addition: thumbnail pictures of 
their Facebook friends who had clicked on “I voted.” Using public voter 
rolls to compare the groups after the election, the researchers 
concluded that the second post had turned out hundreds of thousands of 
voters.

In 2012, Facebook researchers again secretly tweaked the newsfeed for an 
experiment: Some people were shown slightly more positive posts, while 
others were shown slightly more negative posts. Those shown more upbeat 
posts in turn posted significantly more of their own upbeat posts; those 
shown more downbeat posts responded in kind. Decades of other research 
concurs that people are influenced by their peers and social networks.

All of this renders preposterous Mr. Zuckerberg’s claim that Facebook, a 
major conduit for information in our society, has “no influence.”

The problem with Facebook’s influence on political discourse is not 
limited to the dissemination of fake news. It’s also about echo 
chambers. The company’s algorithm chooses which updates appear higher up 
in users’ newsfeeds and which are buried. Humans already tend to cluster 
among like-minded people and seek news that confirms their biases. 
Facebook’s research shows that the company’s algorithm encourages this 
by somewhat prioritizing updates that users find comforting.

I’ve seen this firsthand. While many of my Facebook friends in the 
United States lean Democratic, I do have friends who voted for Mr. 
Trump. But I had to go hunting for their posts because Facebook’s 
algorithm almost never showed them to me; for whatever reason the 
algorithm wrongly assumed that I wasn’t interested in their views.

Content geared toward these algorithmically fueled bubbles is 
financially rewarding. That’s why YouTube has a similar feature in which 
it recommends videos based on what a visitor has already watched.

It’s also why, according to a report in BuzzFeed News, a bunch of young 
people in a town in Macedonia ran more than a hundred pro-Trump websites 
full of fake news. Their fabricated article citing anonymous F.B.I. 
sources claiming Hillary Clinton would be indicted, for example, got 
more than 140,000 shares on Facebook and may well have been viewed by 
millions of people since each share is potentially seen by hundreds of 
users. Even if each view generates only a fraction of a penny, that adds 
up to serious money.

Photo

Mark Zuckerberg, chairman and chief executive of Facebook. Credit Eric 
Risberg/Associated Press
Of course, fake news alone doesn’t explain the outcome of this election. 
People vote the way they do for a variety of reasons, but their 
information diet is a crucial part of the picture.

After the election, Mr. Zuckerberg claimed that the fake news was a 
problem on “both sides” of the race. There are, of course, viral fake 
anti-Trump memes, but reporters have found that the spread of false news 
is far more common on the right than it is on the left.

The Macedonian teenagers found this, too. They had experimented with 
left-leaning or pro-Bernie Sanders content, but gave up when they found 
it wasn’t as reliable a source of income as pro-Trump content. But even 
if Mr. Zuckerberg were right and fake news were equally popular on both 
sides, it would still be a profound problem.

Only Facebook has the data that can exactly reveal how fake news, hoaxes 
and misinformation spread, how much there is of it, who creates and who 
reads it, and how much influence it may have. Unfortunately, Facebook 
exercises complete control over access to this data by independent 
researchers. It’s as if tobacco companies controlled access to all 
medical and hospital records.

These are not easy problems to solve, but there is a lot Facebook could 
do. When the company decided it wanted to reduce spam, it established a 
policy that limited its spread. If Facebook had the same kind of zeal 
about fake news, it could minimize its spread, too.

If anything, Facebook has been moving in the wrong direction. It 
recently fired its (already too few) editors responsible for weeding out 
fake news from its trending topics section. Unsurprisingly, the section 
was then flooded with even more spurious articles

This June, just as the election season was gearing up, Facebook tweaked 
its algorithm to play down posts from news outlets and to increase 
updates shared by friends and family. The reasonable explanation is that 
that’s what people want to see. Did this mean less reputable stories 
spread quickly through social networks while real journalism got 
depressed? Only Facebook knows. Worse, Facebook doesn’t flag or mark 
credible news websites: The article from The Denver Guardian, a paper 
that doesn’t even exist, has the same format on the platform as an 
article from The Denver Post, a real newspaper.

In addition to doing more to weed out lies and false propaganda, 
Facebook could tweak its algorithm so that it does less to reinforce 
users’ existing beliefs, and more to present factual information. This 
may seem difficult, but perhaps the Silicon Valley billionaires who 
helped create this problem should take it on before setting out to 
colonize Mars.

Facebook should also allow truly independent researchers to collaborate 
with its data team to understand and mitigate these problems. A more 
balanced newsfeed might lead to less “engagement,” but Facebook, with a 
market capitalization of more than $300 billion and no competitor in 
sight, can afford this.

This should not be seen as a partisan issue. The spread of false 
information online is corrosive for society at large. In a 2012 opinion 
essay in The Times, I cited the Obama campaign’s successful social media 
and data strategy to warn about the potential dangers of polarization 
and distasteful political methods, like misinformation on social media.

And the dangers of Facebook’s current setup are not limited to the 
United States. The effects can be even more calamitous in countries with 
fewer checks and balances, and weaker institutions and independent 
media. In Myanmar, for example, misinformation on Facebook has 
reportedly helped fuel ethnic cleansing, creating an enormous refugee 
crisis.

Facebook may want to claim that it is remaining neutral, but that is a 
false and dangerous stance. The company’s business model, algorithms and 
policies entrench echo chambers and fuel the spread of misinformation.

Letting this stand is not neutrality; it amplifies the dangerous 
currents roiling the world. When Facebook is discussed in tomorrow’s 
history books, it will probably not be about its quarterly earnings 
reports and stock options.

Zeynep Tufekci is an associate professor at the University of North 
Carolina School of Information and Library Science and a contributing 
opinion writer.



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