Under increasing criticism, Mark Zuckerberg over the weekend again insisted that Facebook played no real role in influencing the outcome of the presidential election. A claim that’s been undercut by the company’s own employees in at least two recent media reports.
“Of all the content on Facebook, more than 99% of what people see is authentic,” Zuckerberg wrote in a status update posted Saturday. “The hoaxes that do exist are not limited to one partisan view, or even to politics. Overall, this makes it extremely unlikely hoaxes changed the outcome of this election in one direction or the other.”
Responding to a question in the comments, Zuckerberg said that the 99 percent number refers to all of the content posted to the social network.
Critics called it a laughable data point.
“It’s a silly use of statistics that anyone could see through,” Jay Rosen, a media critic and journalism professor at New York University told The Huffington Post. “One percent of stuff could be 45 percent of what’s shared. That’s almost like a joke answer. It’s almost like ‘Mexico will pay for the wall’ or something.”
Facebook also announced last week that it would do more to combat fake news on the site.
On Monday Gizmodo, citing internal sources at Facebook, reported that a previous effort at the company to aggressively go after fake news was quashed because it would have disproportionately affected conservative news sites. Facebook said this was not true, in a statement to Mashable.
Facebook’s been under increasing criticism for the way it helped fake news ― from both right- and left-leaning sites ― go viral over the course of the election cycle. Others are emphasizing that the social network helps wall off people from each other, reinforcing already-existing beliefs, amplifying partisan leanings and fundamentally reshaping the functioning of our democracy.
As recently as Sunday night, this reporter saw a report on Facebook that Taylor Swift voted for Donald Trump (we do not know who she voted for). A report claiming that the pope was endorsing Trump got 800,000 shares recently. Other viral fake news this past cycle involved issues like Hillary Clinton’s health, which grew into big stories in the mainstream press.
Last week, Zuckerberg said that the notion that fake news influenced the election was a “pretty crazy idea.”
He has yet to engage with a more nuanced argument about the way Facebook can influence public opinion and perception, however.
Zuckerberg’s own employees seem to be grappling with these issues, as well as others in the tech industry. The New York Times reported over the weekend that some Facebook employees are worried about the role the company is playing in politics.
“Highly partisan, fact-light media outlets blinded us on the left (HuffPo, Vox), and propelled Donald Trump into the lead on the right (Breitbart),” Bobby Goodlatte, a former Facebook product designer, wrote on Facebook after the election last week. “Sadly, their fuel is the social internet: [Facebook’s] News Feed, Twitter, Reddit too.” The election is a wakeup call, he writes, urging social media sites to figure out a better way to optimize themselves toward truth ― instead of shares.
Yet, Zuckerberg so far is not engaging with these issues, Rosen said, because the solution would ultimately mean that Facebook must hire real people to filter out truth from fiction, rather than relying on an algorithm.
“He’s trying to protect against the moment when Facebook has to admit [the] problem and there’s no algorithmic solution to it; there’s only a people solution,” Rosen said. “This is the reason why his answers seem so empty.”
A previous effort to use human editors to handle trending news on Facebook was roundly criticized by conservatives and abandoned.
Nearly half of Americans now get their news from Facebook, according to data from Pew. Yet Zuckerberg continues to insist that the social network is a technology company primarily focused on friends and family connecting with each other.
“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,” Zuckerberg wrote in Saturday’s post. “We are a technology company because the main thing we do across many products is engineer and build technology to enable all these things.”