A Philosopher's Blog

Fake News II: Facebook

Posted in Ethics, Philosophy by Michael LaBossiere on December 5, 2016

Mark Zuckerberg, founder and CEO of Facebook

While a thorough analysis of the impact of fake news on the 2016 election will be an ongoing project, there are excellent reasons to believe that it was a real factor. For example, BuzzFeed’s analysis showed how the fake news stories outperformed real news stories. When confronted with the claim that fake news on Facebook influenced the election results, Mark Zuckerberg’s initial reaction was denial. However, as critics have pointed out, to say that Facebook does not influence people is to tell advertisers that they are wasting their money on Facebook. While this might be the case, Zuckerberg cannot consistently pitch the influence of Facebook to his customers while denying that it has such influence. One of these claims must be mistaken.

While my own observations do not constitute a proper study, I routinely observed people on Facebook treating fake news stories as if they were real.  In some cases, these errors were humorous—people had mistaken satire for real news. In other cases, they were not so funny—people were enraged over things that had not actually happened. There is also the fact that public figures (such as Trump) and pundits repeat fake news stories acquired from Facebook (and other sources). As such, fake news does seem to be a real problem on Facebook.

It could be claimed that the surge in fake news is an anomaly, that it was the result of a combination of factors that will probably not align again. One factor would be having presidential candidates so disliked that people would find even fake stories plausible. A second factor would be Trump’s relentless spewing of untruths, thus creating an environment friendly to fake news. A third factor would be Trump ratcheting the Republican attack on the mainstream news media to 11, thus pushing people towards other news sources and undercutting fact checking and critical reporting. Provided that these and similar factors change, fake news could decline significantly.

While this could happen, it seems that some of these factors will continue. As president elect, Trump has continued to spew untruths and the attacks on the mainstream media continue. The ecosystem thus seems ideal for fake news to thrive. As such, it seems likely that while the fake news will decline to some degree, it will remain a factor as long as it is influential or profitable. This is where Facebook comes in—while fake news sites can always have their own web pages, Facebook serves up the fake news to a huge customer base and thus drives the click based profits (thanks to things like Google advertising) of these sites. This powerful role of Facebook gives rise to moral concerns about its accountability.

One obvious approach is to claim that Facebook has no moral responsibility in regards to policing fake news. This could be argued by drawing an analogy between Facebook and a delivery company like UPS or Fedex. Rather than delivering physical packages, Facebook is delivering news.

A delivery company is responsible for delivering a package intact and within the specified time. However, it does not have a moral responsibility regarding what is shipped. Suppose, for example, that businesses arose selling “Artisanal Macedonian Pudding” and purport that it is real pudding. But, in fact, it is a blend of sugar and shit that looks like pudding. Some customers fail to recognize it for what it is and happily shovel it into their pudding port; probably getting sick—but still loving the taste. If the delivery company were criticized for delivering the pudding, they would be right to say that they are not responsible for the “pudding”—they merely deliver packages. The responsibility lies with the “pudding” companies. And the customers for not recognizing sugary shit as shit. If the analogy holds, then Facebook is just delivering fake news as the delivery company delivers “Macedonian Pudding” and is not morally responsible for the contents of the packages.

A possible counter to this is that once Facebook knows that a site is a fake news site, then they are morally responsible for continuing to deliver the fake news. Going with the delivery analogy, once the delivery company is aware that “Artisanal Macedonian Pudding” is sugar and shit, they have a moral obligation to cease their business with those making this dangerous product. This could be countered by arguing that as long as the customer wants the package of “pudding”, then it is morally fine for the delivery company to provide it. However, this would seem to require that the customer knows they are getting sugar and shit—otherwise the delivery company is knowingly participating in a deceit and the distribution of a harmful product. This would seem to be morally wrong.

Another approach to countering this argument is to use a different analogy: Facebook is not like a delivery company, it is like a restaurant selling the product. Going back to the “pudding”, a restaurant that knowingly purchased and served sugar and shit as pudding would be morally accountable for this misdeed. By this analogy, once Facebook knows they are profiting from selling fake news, they are morally accountable and in the wrong if they fail to address this. A possible response to this is to contend that Facebook is not selling the fake news; but this leads to the question of what Facebook is doing.

One way to look at Facebook is that the fake news is just like advertising in any other media. In this case, the company selling the ad is not morally accountable for the content of the ad of the quality of the product. Going back to the “pudding”, if one company is selling sugar and shit as pudding, the company running the advertising is not morally responsible. The easy counter to this is that once the company selling the ads knows that the “pudding” is sugar and shit, then they would be morally wrong to be a party to this harmful deception. Likewise for Facebook treating fake news as advertising.

Another way to look at Facebook is that it is serving as a news media company and is in the business of providing the news.  Going back to the pudding analogy, Facebook would be in the pudding business as a re-seller, selling sugar and shit as real pudding. This would seem to obligate Facebook to ensure that the news it provides is accurate and to not distribute news it knows it is fake. This assumes a view of journalistic ethics that is obviously not universally accepted, but a commitment to the truth seems to be a necessary bedrock of any worthwhile media ethics.

 

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  1. ajmacdonaldjr said, on December 5, 2016 at 8:47 am

    What the mainstream media is calling “fake news” includes “conspiracy theories”. If I post a link to a book about Pearl Harbor that explains how FDR knew the attack was coming, am I posting “fake news”? If I post a link to a website that explains how ISIS is being funded by Saudi Arabia and Qatar — both US and Israeli allies — am I posting “fake news”? If I post a link about media/government collusion and propaganda dissemination, am I posting “fake news”? If I post a link to a 5 hour YouTube documentary explaining how the official story of 9/11 is a lie, am I posting “fake news”?

    • ronster12012 said, on December 5, 2016 at 12:45 pm

      AJ

      It is obviously ‘fake news’ because ‘fake news’ is anything outside of the consensus reality created by the ‘opinion formers’ for our consumption. Truth has nothing to do with its ‘fakeness’, fake is anything that is considered undesirable by the elites for plebs to believe. So please don’t confuse the issue with facts, remember ‘Ignorance is Strength’…….

  2. TJB said, on December 5, 2016 at 11:34 am

    Mike, let’s say the President lies about something, say, for example: “If you like your doctor, you can keep your doctor.”

    Now, let’s say someone–like Joe Wilson, for example–calls out the President on his lie.

    Now, let’s say the press jumps all over Joe Wilson and accuses *him* of lying.

    Is this not fake news?

    • ronster12012 said, on December 5, 2016 at 12:52 pm

      TJ

      Now that is not fair…judging our superiors by our ordinary standards….that will never do. It was most likely real in their minds, at least the moment they said it.

    • WTP said, on December 5, 2016 at 3:20 pm

      Please, RJ…fake news is whatever Mike, and similar ilk, chooses to not believe. “Real” news is what they choose to believe. CBS attacks on GWB with their faked evidence is still real news to them. Any evidence that George Zimmerman was justified in killing Tray von Martin is fake news to them. It’s all Humpty-Dumpty. Child’s play.

      • WTP said, on December 5, 2016 at 3:20 pm

        TJ not RJ. Damn phone.

  3. DH said, on December 5, 2016 at 1:04 pm

    I will re-state what I did before – that I do not believe that there is a “surge” in fake news at all. It’s no different than the idea that we are in an epidemic of gun violence or that there is nationwide targeting of African Americans by the police or that there is a “war on women”. What we are seeing is a surge in Facebook and other social media use, which could (and likely does) point to a relatively unchanged volume of fake news that is being re-posted by more people at a greatly increased rate.

    In 2004, when Bush was re-elected, there were 1 million active monthly Facebook users
    In 2008, when Obama was elected, there were 100 million active monthly Facebook users
    In 2012, when Obama was re-elected, there were 1 billion active monthly Facebook users
    In 2016, when Trump was elected, there were 1.71 billion active monthly Facebook users.

    To add to that, there has been a surge of competetive and companion social networking sites like Facebook Messenger, Facebook Live, What’sApp WeChat, Tumblr, Twitter, and others.

    https://finance.yahoo.com/news/number-active-users-facebook-over-years-214600186–finance.html
    https://www.statista.com/statistics/272014/global-social-networks-ranked-by-number-of-users/

    Your post brings up a very terrifying issue – of assigning responsibility to Facebook, and implying that they might be required to monitor and/or control the amount of “fake news” that is reported. They must then be subject to some kind of official oversight to make sure they comply. Of course, we could follow China’s lead and censor or disallow Facebook entirely – short of that I’m not sure exactly what we would do that is in keeping with the First Amendment.

    If the government is the final arbiter of what is “true” and what is “fake” – who will monitor the government to make sure that they are not abusing that power and censoring those news outlets that simply don’t agree with them?

    I will re-state that the burden is on the consumer. Fake news is not something that is even on my radar – but then again, I don’t use Facebook or other social media, and I am very careful about checking facts and referring to alternate sources for nearly everything I read, not just that which I find suspicious.

    We have certain freedoms in this country that are very precious, and set us apart from so many oppressive others. It is up to us to make sure that we use these freedoms responsibly, and that we are wary of those who do not.

    One alternative, as I suggest above and you allude to in your post, is to monitor and censor the news to make sure that they report only “the truth” (whoever is in charge of that definition).

    Another is to have voting tests for citizens – along the lines of “I don’t really care what you believe, but if it not the truth as I have defined it, you forfeit your right to vote”.

    • ronster12012 said, on December 5, 2016 at 1:19 pm

      DH

      Interesting how this term ‘Fake news’ just emerged so suddenly. Like it was prepped and sitting there waiting for the right moment to be launched and now it is bandied about as if it were a well defined term that had been around forever.

    • Michael LaBossiere said, on December 6, 2016 at 7:52 pm

      The idea of a private media company policing its own media is not a new thing; if Facebook wants to push news stories, it has the same moral obligation as cable news stations to vet what it is putting in peoples’ eyeballs.

      I would generally oppose the state getting involved, unless the fake news broke existing laws about libel, etc.

  4. ronster12012 said, on December 5, 2016 at 1:11 pm

    Michael

    Why exactly are you defending the MSM? As Mark Twain said many years ago, and is still true(IMO) today, the difference between someone who reads newspapers and someone who doesn’t is that the former is merely uninformed whereas that latter is misinformed.

    One thing I love about Trump winning is not only did the media provide him with all that free publicity but according to a Wikileaks( real news organization as opposed to NYT, WaPo etc) email from HRC herself, she wanted him as the candidate to run against as she believed that she would beat him more easily than a more moderate candidate.And the media went along with this plan….talk about getting bitten on the arse by your own cleverness..lol.

  5. nailheadtom said, on December 5, 2016 at 1:33 pm

    We’re swimming in an ocean of mendacity. How is “fake news” and different than the other flack we’re plastered with? Marketing and advertising couldn’t be more fake but somehow we’ve adjusted to it. Considering this as a problem is the first step to identifying solutions, regulation of the internet by government for sure, perhaps with a poised hammer as they have with the motion picture industry. In any event the free dissemination of information and misinformation will soon be over.

    • ronster12012 said, on December 5, 2016 at 1:47 pm

      Tom
      Are you serious about regulation of the net by govcorp? Have you really thought that through?

      • nailheadtom said, on December 5, 2016 at 4:03 pm

        You really don’t think that the government is going to stand idly by and watch a flow of information that they can’t control? They’ll make it an issue of national security, part of the fight against terror, criminal money laundering and tax evasion. The US has been able to intimidate institutions in every other part of the world over lesser stuff, Swiss banks, for instance. They’ve seen the influence over national elections and the various color revolutions. They can’t afford to allow it to continue.

        • ronster12012 said, on December 5, 2016 at 7:08 pm

          Tom

          Sorry I may have misunderstood you. I thought that you were advocating net regulation(it sort of reads like that).

  6. WTP said, on December 5, 2016 at 10:39 pm

    Here’s some fake news for you. Trump takes congratulatory phone call from the leader of Taiwan and the MSM and the political left (yes, I repeat myself) shit themselves and scream about how this damages relationship with China. However in China’s government controlled media, not so much.

    For Tsai, the phone call, a “petty gambit” as Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi called it, will bring nothing substantial but illusionary pride. If she managed to divert public outcry from her bad performance, she will not succeed. Tsai has to face the cold reality of a sagging approval rate and economic woes on the island after the media craze over the incident vanishes.

    It would be a mistake if Tsai and her administration over-interpret the meaning of the phone call and believe it can induce a change in the US long-standing one-China policy. Actually, after the news of the phone call broke out, Ned Price, the White House National Security Council spokesman, assured on Friday evening that Washington remains firmly committed to the one China policy, which has been in place despite ups and downs in Sino-US ties. Given the strongest economic and people-to-people exchanges between the two countries at present, there is no reason for the Trump administration to break away from it.

    http://www.chinadaily.com.cn/opinion/2016-12/03/content_27560464.htm

  7. WTP said, on December 5, 2016 at 10:54 pm

    FFFFS, you can’t make this up. Or is this fake news…Obama thinks Rolling Stone is a source of good journalism…

    In October, President Obama complained that we need a “curating function” to deal with the “wild-wild-west-of-information flow.” Who would be doing this “curating” is unclear — but we can guess: “Obviously,” Noah Feldman writes at Bloomberg View, “it would be better if the market would fix the problem on its own . . . But if they can’t reliably do it — and that seems possible, since algorithms aren’t (yet) fact-checkers — there might be a need for the state to step in.”

    In other words, censorship. And whom might the government look to target in this crackdown? In an interview with Jann Wenner of Rolling Stone last week, Obama said again that “The biggest challenge that I think we have right now in terms of this divide is that the country receives information from completely different sources.” Uh-oh.

    Seemingly with a straight face, Obama then told Wenner: “Good journalism continues to this day. There’s great work done in Rolling Stone.” Rolling Stone, of course, ran a sensational, and false, story last year about a gang rape at a University of Virginia fraternity that was thoroughly discredited. The magazine was forced to pay a university administrator it defamed $3 million in damages, and there may be more lawsuits in store. “Good journalism” and Rolling Stone do not go hand in hand.

    http://nypost.com/2016/12/04/the-war-on-fake-news-is-all-about-censoring-real-news/

    Ok, I’m done. That’s all the stupid I can take for one day.

    • ronster12012 said, on December 6, 2016 at 6:11 am

      WTP

      I’ll raise you an ‘F’ with a FFFFFS in this game of absurdity, though I think that we will soon run out of Fs as we approach .the event horizon.

      So many of the very same people who demanded the right to free speech 30 or 40 years ago are now demanding its abolition…I hope someone is keeping notes on who wants us muzzled.

      What I find interesting is how easily the term ‘Fake News’ has been uncritically adopted, with not much actual analysis. Are populations of western countries hypnotized? It seems that way as each year brings a new meme adopted by the masses, global warming/climate change/global climate disruption(Obama’s attempt at rebadging it)gay marriage a couple of years ago, then trannie rights and now ‘fake news’. Each one with an agenda behind it, and in the case od fake news, censorship.

      Never ever give up your First Amendment rights. I say that as we in Oz don’r have actual free speech. Offend the wrong people(no, we are not equal before the law, despite the official ideology being that of ‘equality’) and off to jail you goor big fines or a lawyers bill to bankrupt you. Of course if you are a straight, white male then you are the lowest of the low and deserve no protection whatsoever.

  8. DH said, on December 6, 2016 at 11:52 am

    “Fake News” in itself is autological

  9. WTP said, on December 6, 2016 at 9:23 pm

    Ace of Spades on “fake news”. Hath Mike the balls to comment?

    December 06, 2016
    Fake News and “Fake News”
    I guess putting embedded YooToob links on the front page slows down the blog, so my video is below the fold.

    What you will see is a 10-minute conversation between Fox TV commentator/talking head Tucker Carlson and NY Times Public Editor Liz Spayd. The subject of the conversation is the NY Times’ craptacular election coverage, and I actually felt a bit sorry for her because she is being called upon to defend the indefensible, and her heart clearly isn’t in it. And she is actually rendered speechless more than once in this interview, and it takes her awhile to phrase an answer.

    This is actually a good sign on a personal level for her. It means that somewhere deep down inside, there is a little flame of honesty that her work for the NY Times has been unable to extinguish.

    And I think it’s hilarious how hard the post-election MSM has been pushing the “fake news” narrative, because basically they’re just trying to deflect from their unbelievably crappy news coverage that this election has laid bare for all to see. The MSM basically did not do its job and their response has been to point the finger that somebody else.

    And I hope you’ve all noticed that what they mean by “fake news” is just news they don’t agree with:

    The fake journalism that helped elect Donald Trump is now enemy number one for the fourth estate.
    The linked article is an hilarious anthology of NY Times pieces that got the election completely wrong.

    And Carlson doesn’t take any guff. When Spayd tries to deflect the bias charge by trotting out the tired and predictable line that “we get many e-mails saying we’ve been too relentlessly negative on Hillary and her e-mail server”, Carlson snarks, “Yeah, I know they’re pretty upset about that on the Upper West Side.”

    My prediction is that Ms. Spayd will not last long as the Times’ public editor. She reminds me a lot of Daniel Okrent, the man who first occupied the position of “public editor” at the Times. He actually admitted that, yes, sometimes the newspaper he works for is liberally biased, and that’s a problem. So he, get this, didn’t last long, he was soon replaced by a succession of company apologists who acted more like Baghdad Bob than public editors. I think Ms. Spayd will soon be seeking employment elsewhere.

  10. WTP said, on December 8, 2016 at 10:57 am

    If anything, Trump’s victory will inspire the paper to be even more biased. Clearly, the reported spike in digital subscriptions to the paper reflects the expectation of liberals that the paper will double down on its opposition to all matters Trump. The CEO of the paper attributes the post-election spike to a demand for “independent journalism,” which is another euphemism for liberal opposition research masquerading as reporting.

    Former New York Times columnist Anthony Lewis once said that America needed a “new people.” That view remains popular at the paper. Reporters don’t fault themselves for failing to understand the electorate. They fault voters for failing to act on the media’s biased reporting. Peter Baker, the paper’s Jerusalem bureau chief, has tweeted, “Real scandal isn’t what media didn’t report; it’s what it did & readers didn’t care,” while linking to an article by his wife, Susan Glasser, from a liberal publication. In the article, she complains about the disappearance of a liberal media monopoly.

    “The bully pulpits, those of the press and the pols, have proliferated, and it’s hard not to feel as though we’re witnessing a sort of revolutionary chaos: the old centers of power have been torn down, but the new ones have neither the authority nor the legitimacy of those they’ve superseded,” she writes.

    Says who? And what gave the old centers of power their authority and legitimacy? Such declarations amount to nothing more than the whining of liberals who have lost their unearned privileges. The “authority” and “legitimacy” of the left’s media monopoly rested not on wisdom, virtue, or any superior standards but upon the possession of raw power. They could define the terms of any discussion by virtue of that power, but now without it, they look like sputtering fools, throwing out terms like “fake news” and a “post-truth age” in a desperate attempt to retain their supposed superiority.

    Spayd is a “public editor” at a paper that doesn’t want to hear from the public. It wants to propagandize them. As that becomes harder to do, owing to an abundance of alternatives, the paper’s reporters retreat into the liberal bubble even more. They huddle together and talk darkly of “threats to press freedom” and a “crisis in journalism.” But all this chatter amounts to is a glorified complaint about the diminution of their own power, which they wielded recklessly and lost justly.

    https://spectator.org/useless-spayd-work/


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