Does fake news swing elections?

Friday, November 11, 2016
by Cameron Shelley

As Scott recently point out, the recent U.S. election has been characterized by a deluge of fake news.  A concern about this phenomenon is that it distracts from the real news and entrenches readers in their prejudices through confirmation bias

In the wake of Donald Trump's election win, social media has been criticized for promoting the flow of fake news and, perhaps, biasing the result.  On Thursday, Facebook founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg dismissed complaints along these lines:

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.  Voters make decisions based on their lived experience.

Of course, many American's lived experience includes Facebook news.  Something like 44% of Americans receive news through this medium.  In addition, the quantity of fake news might not tell us how influential it is.  Nevertheless, Zuckerberg may be right that fake news is more a symptom of people's political views that a shaper of them.

Even so, Facebook seems to regard fake news as a problem.  Adam Mosseri, VP of product management at Facebook, has remarked that:

We take misinformation on Facebook very seriously.  We understand there’s so much more we need to do, and that is why it’s important that we keep improving our ability to detect misinformation.

If Facebook is merely a barometer of public opinion, then why is misinformation on the service an issue?

The service is caught in a tension.  On the one hand, Zuckerberg insists that Facebook is a platform, that is, merely a conduit that people use to share information as they see fit, like the old phone network.  Just as it would be inappropriate for your phone service provider to censor your calls, it would be inappropriate for Facebook to censor what you choose to share as news.

On the other hand, Facebook does quite a bit of work to curate the news that users receive.  It creates extensive user profiles in order to present people with news tailored to their own interests.  As Zuckerberg once said:

A squirrel dying in your front yard may be more relevant to your interests right now than people dying in Africa.

No phone company I know of ever attempted to filter your calls to anything like the degree that Facebook filters your news.

Since Facebook has taken on the task of arranging a personal window on the world for each of its users, does it have any obligation to see that their windows show the world as it is?

Mark Zuckerberg - South by Southwest 2008 - 2 By Jason McELweenie [CC BY 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons.