Facebook’s responsibility to regulate fake news on its site, particularly the false stories that gained traction during the election cycle, has sparked national debate about what role the platform should play in politics. While the company’s CEO Mark Zuckerberg has distanced himself from the popular theory that Facebook could have significantly swayed voters, the bottom line is that if his company profits from fake news sources, then it is also responsible for flagging them.
A BuzzFeed News analysis shows that the “20 top-performing false election stories from hoax sites and hyper partisan blogs generated 8,711,000 shares, reactions and comments on Facebook.” Conversely, “within the same time period, the 20 best-performing election stories from 19 major news websites generated a total of 7,367,000 shares, reactions, and comments on Facebook,” BuzzFeed reported.
“Of the 20 top-performing false election stories identified in the analysis, all but three were overtly pro-Donald Trump or anti-Hillary Clinton,” Craig Silverman, BuzzFeed Canada’s founding editor, wrote. “Two of the biggest false hits were a story claiming Clinton sold weapons to ISIS and a hoax claiming the pope endorsed Trump, which the site removed after publication of this article.”
Zuckerberg has consistently shied away from calling Facebook a news platform, instead labeling it a “technology company,” but social media has far outpaced the growth of more traditional news outlets. While Facebook may not be responsible for actually producing stories, the website includes features like “trending” stories, inherently editorializing its home page by selectively highlighting news. Whatever he chooses to call it, Zuckerberg cannot deny that Facebook plays a pivotal role in how we consume news.
“People share and read a lot of news on Facebook, so we feel a great responsibility to handle that as well as we can,” Zuckerberg said in the comment thread on his Nov. 12 status about Facebook’s role in the election. “But remember that Facebook is mostly about helping people stay connected with friends and family. News and media are not the primary things people do on Facebook, so I find it odd when people insist we call ourselves a news or media company in order to acknowledge its importance.”
Let’s compare Zuckerberg’s response to our current reality. According to the Pew Research Center, 44 percent of the overall U.S. population accesses news on Facebook. Breaking this number down, 62 percent of U.S. adults get news on social media generally, 67 percent of adults are on Facebook in the U.S. and 66 percent of all Facebook users get news from the site. In short, we’re discussing a sizable portion of the adult population that heavily relies on Facebook for news.
Zuckerberg seems conflicted about addressing the problem head on. Though he boasts about mobilizing millions to get to the polls, he is quick to deny that Facebook actually shaped people’s opinions in the election. The real danger that lies in Zuckerberg’s persistent rejection of Facebook’s political role is its pervasiveness in the “post-fact era.” Just yesterday, a member of a panel of Trump supporters told CNN that she knew “millions of illegals voted” because she saw it on Facebook.
In an ever-evolving media landscape, Facebook must accept its responsibility as a key player in shaping public opinion. Though the website’s original intention was to connect friends and family, it has since transformed into one of the most influential communication platforms of our time. Zuckerberg must accept this reality and prioritize flagging fake stories or get left behind.