Here’s a fact: Every time you visit Facebook, someone is lying to you.
Perhaps it’s your neighbor who posts idyllic family photos while his marriage crumbles behind closed doors. Maybe it’s a co-worker who brags of professional successes, even though you know her claims are inflated or outright fabricated.
Or it might be an entirely made-up “news story” that has been designed to look legitimate but is actually intended only to spread incorrect information, to foster division and to sow discontent.
Rarely in history – if ever – has society dealt with a cultural behemoth such as Facebook. With more than 2 billion active users worldwide, it can be a useful and often poignant tool for human connection. But it also has a dark underbelly as a potent and highly concentrated stew of misdirection, misinformation and disinformation.
For entities that stake their reputations on the production and dissemination of trustworthy information, this is where the relationship with Facebook – and, by extension, other online platforms such as Google, Twitter and YouTube – begins to disintegrate.
Of course, in the digital age, social media platforms are vital distributors of traditional media outlets’ work: Think of newspaper Facebook pages as the modern equivalent of the street-corner newsboys of the 19th century. There are financial concerns about this arrangement, though, and those concerns are significant enough to have drawn the attention of Congress, where bipartisan legislation has been proposed to “provide a temporary ‘safe harbor’ – a four-year antitrust exemption for news publishers as they negotiate with Google and Facebook over how news content is used and how advertising dollars are distributed,” according to Margaret Sullivan of The Washington Post.
This is a serious issue facing the future of news gathering, but the average American rightfully should be less worried about the business of news and more worried about the validity of news. Numerous studies indicate that growing swaths of the population turn to social media as their primary news source, particularly younger generations. That platform choice, in and of itself, is not troubling. What is concerning, though, is that these platforms offer their users virtually no way to differentiate between “proper” news media (the outlets that strive to present reliable, fact-based information, even if they sometimes fall short in that pursuit) and those that seek only to mislead, confuse and, frankly, lie – sometimes with purely malicious and malignant intent.
Savvy social media users realize that care must be taken in choosing which reporting to trust. For far too many users, however, social media is an overwhelming wash of headlines, videos and links – if they spot something that looks interesting, they click. If they like what they see, they share. Then someone else repeats that routine until, in some cases, many thousands of people have seen – and believe – the content. Problem is, there’s a good chance that the item – which, to an average reader or viewer probably looks, sounds and feels exactly like a “real” news report – contains not a wisp of factual information.
It should be clear why this is a perilous circumstance for our democracy. To put it simply, uninformed and ill-informed people are uninformed and ill-informed voters.
There is little that the social media platforms themselves can do to stem the tide of false information. The First Amendment protects the right of anyone to belch out whatever hogwash he or she chooses. And even for mammoth corporations such as Google and Facebook, which have seemingly unlimited resources, it’s not feasible to sift through every post and every link to verify the claims within. That mountain is too tall to climb.
But individual users are not responsible for every post and every link on social media. They are only responsible for how they interact with their own feeds and searches, which represent a tiny sliver of the online abyss. Individuals should identify known news sources that are trustworthy and stick with them, rejecting unfamiliar or unreliable “outlets” that might not even exist in the first place.
Unless Americans make choices that reward those seeking the truth and punish those spreading disinformation, it’s easy to envision a bleak future for our nation. Just as a house divided cannot stand, a house built on lies doesn’t have much of a chance, either.