Alan Zendell, June 3, 2020
I try to base my opinions on facts, but to be honest, I have a long-standing bias against Facebook which is entirely visceral, like the way I always cringe when I encounter a snake. It’s just a perception that there’s something ominous and dangerous there, but it’s being borne out by events.
My anti-Facebook feelings are in part influenced by several works of futuristic fiction in which the concept of formalized news reporting and fact-checking is subsumed by crowd-sourcing and unregulated publishing of opinions. Science fiction doesn’t always accurately predict the future in specific detail, but well thought out projections of social trends often hit the mark. Many of the futuristic models of how we will receive information in the not-too-distant future suggest the we will be sampling unvetted sources and opinions based on which notions are trending or most popular. That amounts to truth by democracy, deciding which facts to believe based on which point of view gets the most votes.
Part of the problem is that the era when today’s news was the first draft of history, an idea often attributed to long-time Washington Post publisher Phil Graham, are long gone. It’s bad enough that every news outlet seems unable to report without adding its own spin, but the Trump administration has waged a war on facts since the day the president announced his candidacy five years ago. Watch the coverage of important events on each of the popular news channels and it’s sometimes difficult to tell that they’re reporting on the same occurrences.
Many major news outlets do some form of verification or fact checking, though in a time when virtually everything can be convincingly faked by technology and the reverence once paid to truth has faded considerably, it’s often hard to discern what’s real. Compound that with a completely unregulated public forum hosting a billion users, and truth is replaced by chaos.
In creating such a forum, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg demonstrated that he is a genius in information technology and marketing, if not personal or public relations. His brilliance earned him his billionaire status and made him one of the most powerful media executives in the world. But in no way does that qualify him to decide what represents truth on behalf of his subscribers. Yet, he maintains virtually dictatorial control of how Facebook’s rules are enforced.
If every Facebook user took the time to research the truth of every post, and if conscientious fact-checking always yielded an unambiguous conclusion, Zuckerberg’s determination to allow unedited posts for everything short of overt calls to overthrow the government might not be so dangerous. But the truth is that most users are either uninterested or unable to fact-check like a professional researcher. The evidence of manipulation by Russian intelligence operatives during the 2016 election should have forced changes in the way Facebook does business, but Zuckerberg’s intransigence and the enabling political self-interest of Trump and his allies have allowed Facebook to continue with business as usual.
No one believes treading the fine line between First Amendment protected free speech and the greater public interest is easy, but it’s safe to say that leaving such decisions in the hands of a small number of people with clear conflicts of interest is not the answer. It is precisely because vetting specific posts is so difficult, if not impossible, that Facebook and similar platforms pose an existential threat to our country.
This week, Zuckerberg faced criticism and outrage by many of Facebook’s employees. He has always touted the company’s transparency, but the strained logic of his decision to leave Trump post about shooting demonstrators and the revelation that he discussed the matter directly with the president had his own people in an uproar.
If you use Facebook regularly, the best way to convey your concern to Zuckerberg is to stop using it. If you trust news stories on Facebook, you do so at your own peril, and you endanger all of us. If you use Facebook to post pictures of your family, keep in mind that there are many internet platforms that allow you to do the same thing safely and securely, without exposing you to a tsunami of false and misleading information.
I believe Facebook is too big and too powerful to manage the impact it has on society, and the people who have taken on the responsibility of self-policing within the company have utterly failed. In the final analysis, no matter how Facebook does its job, it is ultimately the responsibility of each of us to evaluate what we read. If we allow ourselves to be led by the nose by unscrupulous or uncaring forces, we won’t like where they take us.