Mark Twain, contrary to popular belief, may not have said, “A lie can travel halfway around the world while the truth is still putting on its shoes,” but whoever came up with the saying certainly was prescient about the internet and its spawning of social media.
This week, The Washington Post reports on the latest study that affirms how Facebook, the most dominant player in social media, is programmed to spread lies much more broadly than the truth.
Researchers from New York University and the Université Grenoble Alpes in France found that during the height of the 2020 U.S. presidential election and its immediate aftermath, news outlets known for putting out misinformation got six times the amount of likes, shares and interactions on Facebook as did trustworthy news sources.
Critics of the study will quibble about the researchers’ conclusions about which news sources are trustworthy and which are not, but it’s worth noting that the study found little ideological difference. Those on the far left were just as likely to have their misleading or inaccurate postings get widely disseminated by Facebook as did those on the far right. There are just more far-right outlets than far-left ones willing to play this dishonest game.
Though Facebook claims it is making efforts to use both human and technological interventions to try to quash misinformation, clearly it’s either not doing enough or the task is inherently impossible without a total overhaul of the platform’s operating logic and its revenue model.
Facebook makes its money selling ads. The more eyeballs it can attract through the content shared on its platform, the more ads it can sell. As anyone knows about human behavior, people are attracted to the most outrageous claims, particularly if those claims reinforce their own biases or worldview. Facebook manipulates that human failing for profit, using its algorithms to spread whatever gets the greatest reaction from its users, regardless of how truthful the information might be. The system is rigged to produce more darkness than light.
Facebook’s guilt is obvious by its behavior and its response to its critics. While claiming to be transparent, it is anything but. It says that engaging with content, such as liking and sharing it, is not the same as actually reading it, but Facebook refuses to make public the data that would show how many people are reading the content. It also used a trumped-up excuse to cut off the NYU researchers last month from being able to track the ads that people see, which are another huge source of misinformation, particularly during elections.
The takeaway from this is simple: A lot of what appears on Facebook and other social media platforms cannot be trusted. Those who depend on these platforms to tell them what’s worth reading or viewing should be especially skeptical of the content if it’s gone viral.
- The Greenwood Commonwealth