TAR HEEL VIEW: Fake news on social media obscures truth

Did you hear the big news?

President Barack Obama has invalidated the election results. A revote is planned for Dec. 19.

Haven’t heard? Good – because it’s not true. Still, this head-spinning bit of fake “news” is getting passed around on Facebook faster than a bong at a stoner party.

Paul Horner, whom the Washington Post describes as “the 38-year-old impresario of a Facebook fake-news empire,” has made a killing this election season posting such sensationalized fakeries to his phony but real-looking news sites and sharing them on Facebook.

Horner told the Post that conservatives — the audience for his subversive political satire — click like crazy. His phony Obama revote story had racked up nearly 250,000 Facebook shares by Thursday.

What’s in it for him? A cool $10,000 a month from Google, whose AdSense system sells ads to companies, puts the ads on websites, and then pays site owners a cut based on audience traffic.

What does America get from this Wild West new media landscape? Increasingly splintered, as social networks and hyper-partisan media clump the like-minded in hermetically sealed echo chambers. Now, to make matters worse, along comes political fake news, which Obama rightly called a “dust cloud of nonsense.”

During the closing stanzas of the election, viral fake news drew more Facebook engagement than real news, a Buzzfeed analysis has found.

Facebook knows it has a problem. It recently said it would apply its ban on deceptive or misleading content to fake news. Google said it will block fake news sites from collecting AdSense revenue.

But even as he rolled out changes, Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg sounded hesitant: “I am confident we can find ways for our community to tell us what content is most meaningful, but I believe we must be extremely cautious about becoming arbiters of truth ourselves.”

And therein lies the problem. Readers assume Facebook’s links about news are indeed news. But Facebook sees itself as a sharing platform, not a news company trying to verify facts. Like most firms in the sharing economy, it believes in the “wisdom of the crowd” — that is, that people can be trusted to sort out fact from fiction, good products from bad products.

But what happens when the crowd finds the clearly factually untrue to be meaningful? Tech firms shouldn’t then get to throw up their hands and say, “Hey, we just write code!” They occupy too central a role in American life for that.

There’s now talk that we’ve entered a post-factual age in America, where “everything is true and nothing is true,” as the president put it. Each faction can have its own set of facts, digitally tailored for its own ideological belief system.

Hyper-partisan fake news didn’t decide the election. But it does hinder the quest for common ground in our fractured society. We’re not suggesting banning fake news sites, as has been done in countries such as Indonesia. We believe in the free exchange of ideas.

But with freedom comes responsibility. Facebook needs to take a stronger hand in tracking and flagging fake news. And Facebook users need to stop letting ideology override their common sense and critical thinking skills.

The Charlotte Observer