Facebook: Our Protector in a Post-Truth Society

I logged onto Facebook today and was immediately alerted by a large banner presenting me with the opportunity to learn some tips on how to distinguish ‘false news’ form real news. There has been demand for Facebook to take action against the spread of fake news that its technological affordances permit for quite some time. The social networking site even faced criticism claiming it was – at least in part – responsible for Trump’s election.

Of course, this brings us back to our discussion of the ethical responsibility of platforms; platforms which are constantly trying to establish themselves as neutral and devoid of politics. Can Facebook (or other platforms) limit the spread of fake news without it seeming as though they have chosen a political side – even if the side is that of democratic media? Are social networking sites inherently political in their affordances as discussed by Langdon Winner? Do the differing structures of various social networking platforms represent differing politics? Some possibly more democratic than others? These questions begin to wade into media theory which is not my intention.

My intention, instead, is to ask whether it’s possible to limit the dissemination of fake news. Can Facebook posting a (temporary) banner – with a few useful tips such as “check the source!”- really alter the reality that we are living in what people have begun referring to as a post-truth society? Fake news exists as a network; perhaps more accurately, as an assemblage. There are the global producers who profit off clicks, the users who share the articles, the technologies which enable their sharing, the human behaviours which fake news alters, the communities whose role it is to develop conspiracy theories, and more. These networks are much larger and more powerful than the platform on its own. As we know, the affordances of a network are such that, even if one node is removed, the network continues to function and instead navigates around that missing node.

Is Facebook’s increased vigilance with ensuring the removal of fake news sources enough to limit its spread? We know that people tend to engage with online communities that reinforce their pre-existing beliefs and ideologies. The people who believe and share fake news are likely to continue doing so, despite Facebook’s tips! When the President of the U.S. claims that “any negative reports are fake news”, disparaging reliable sources such as CNN and The New York Times, the role of Facebook as a platform seems minuscule. It becomes difficult to imagine that the people who have believed and spread fake news in the past would now be interested in critically engaging with the news media they stumble across. The networks surrounding fake news have grown to include their own communities on a number of different platforms; these communities will definitely survive Facebook’s meek effort to reduce the dissemination of fake news.

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