[Marxism] Mark Zuckerberg Is in Denial
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
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.
Mark Zuckerberg, chairman and chief executive of Facebook. Credit Eric
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
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
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
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