Facebook, you may have heard, has a fake news problem. That is a problem because Facebook has a stranglehold on news distribution online, which means that Facebook itself is the problem.
A week after Donald Trump’s election, it was revealed that the company had a fix for fake news, but didn’t roll it out, presumably to avoid pissing off lunatics and other people who love posting crazy stuff online. Mark Zuckerberg has since addressed the issue, outlining steps to curb the dissemination of fake news posts. But Zuckerberg has also, as my colleague Sarah Jones notes, refused to take real responsibility for the crisis, saying that “of all the content on Facebook, more than 99 percent of what people see is authentic” and that “identifying the ‘truth’ is complicated.”
With the controversy still swirling, Facebook sent celebrity feminism avatar Sheryl Sandberg to the Today Show to calm everyone down. “There have been claims that it swayed the election, and we don’t think it swayed the election,’’ Sandberg told Savannah Guthrie. “But we take that responsibility really seriously. And we’re looking at things, like working with third parties, helping to label false news, doing the things we can do to make it clearer what’s a hoax on Facebook.”
There are a few problems here, however. The first is that Hillary Clinton lost a number of key states by fewer than 100,000 votes. Without evidence, Facebook’s insistence that it did not play a major role in the election should be treated with an enormous amount of skepticism, considering that a lot of Americans get their news from the social network.
Second, Facebook’s market-oriented response to the problem does not ameliorate any of these concerns. “We know that people don’t want to see hoaxes on Facebook, and we don’t want to see hoaxes on Facebook,” Sandberg told Guthrie. “And so we’re working on it because misinformation is something we take seriously and something we’re going to continue to iterate on the service.” Facebook cares about fake news only because it cares about “user experience,” not because it is invested in nurturing a new kind of public discourse after it disrupted the old kind. This problem won’t go away until Facebook takes that responsibility seriously.