One of the biggest stories of the 2020 US election is about Facebook. I wrote about it 6 days ago a little bit. My concern, based on anecdotal evidence (even though I personally don’t use Facebook, I know people who do) and a bit of research on what’s popular there, was that 1) Facebook is full of fake news (real fake news, the reason we started talking about fake news at the end of 2016 before Donald Trump co-opted the term), 2) a lot of people spend a LOT of time on Facebook, and get practically all of their information from there.
As it turns out, I had reason to be concerned.
First of all, if you don’t follow this stuff closely, let’s have a quick chat about polls. Political polls are supposed to get a statistical sense of where a vote is headed, or where the public is on a topic of politician. Back in the day when everyone had a landline and no one had caller ID, it worked quite well to poll people on a large variety of topics. These days, getting through to a representative portion of society via a single polling methodology is quite challenging. And, as it turned out, months of polls appeared to be massively off yet again for a major US election.
This is interesting in part because the polls were actually superb in 2012, in 2018, and, well, despite the narrative, they were pretty good in 2016, just not the overarching conclusions about them. This time, though, the polls had a massive miss.
One argument New York Times writer Kevin Roose made before the election, summarized in a headline, was “What if Facebook is the Real ‘Silent Majority’?”
The subheading: “Right-wing influencers are dominating the political discussion on Facebook, raising questions about whether it will translate into electoral success in November.”
It did lead to electoral success. It looks like Joe Biden is on track to win the presidential race — he has the best shot of it at least — but there’s no doubt that Republicans won a lot more races in the 2020 House and Senate races than most people on both sides of the aisle assumed, and there is certainly no huge blue wave for Biden.
The problem with Facebook is that it’s easy, common, popular, and even addictive to like and share shallow information on Facebook, and much of it is “fake news” or misleading news. But people believe it. Because their friend or family member sent it. Because it has a simple and appealing message for you, for your identity or culture. A few messages go viral, and they rope in more and more people who were never engaged in politics before. I know several such people, I learned right at the end of election season.
And you can really reach and get engaged a lot of people who never before got involved because of the ease of sharing, the entertainment component to it all, the gossipy nature of Facebook, the lack of regulation, and the potential for very targeted marketing.
“Listen, liberals. If you don’t think Donald Trump can get re-elected in November, you need to spend more time on Facebook,” Kevin wrote.
“It’s no secret that, despite Mr. Trump’s claims of Silicon Valley censorship, Facebook has been a boon to him and his allies, and hyperpartisan Facebook pages are nothing new. … But what sticks out, when you dig in to the data, is just how dominant the Facebook right truly is. Pro-Trump political influencers have spent years building a well-oiled media machine that swarms around every major news story, creating a torrent of viral commentary that reliably drowns out both the mainstream media and the liberal opposition.
“The result is a kind of parallel media universe that left-of-center Facebook users may never encounter, but that has been stunningly effective in shaping its own version of reality.”
In other words, if you’ve heard some crazy ideas — whether from friends, family, or a presidential candidate in a debate — it’s probably popular on Facebook.
The whole New York Times piece is interesting. Some of the stats and facts there are stunning, chilling.
The big question, and the most concerning part, is: how do we deal with this? I mean, the problem isn’t that deep policy discussions are occurring every day there. No, the problem is that it’s a bunch of clickbait and approximately 107% of it is false. That’s a big problem.
I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: a democracy is built on everyone having access to information, and engaging on it. But we’re flooded and flooded and flooded some more with misinformation (truly fake news or misleading news) on Facebook (and Twitter and some other places, but apparently to a lesser extent. How do we deal with that crisis? How do we move forward as a nation when so much of what people are posting and discussing is totally warped nonsense.
I’ll steal a great metaphor from Johnna Crider: “Imagine having a conversation about math with someone who is brainwashed by Trump. It would go like this:
“‘2+2 = 4’ you would say. Their response would be that this isn’t always true because ‘3+2 doesn’t equal 4.’ And when you say, ‘That’s a different equation,’ their response is, ‘Where did you hear that? CNN? That’s fake news.'”
Indeed, or it’s 2+2 = 7 that you’re fighting against, or 5 +a = pizzagate. Whatever it is, it’s hard to break through crazy misinformation narratives when it’s hard to even understand the context or digest that people could honestly believe some of the crazy stuff they believe. How do you get on the same ground with someone who is obsessively sharing simple messages without digging into their validity and is obsessed with false narratives?
“The reason right-wing content performs so well on Facebook is no mystery. The platform is designed to amplify emotionally resonant posts, and conservative commentators are skilled at turning passionate grievances into powerful algorithm fodder. The company also appears willing to bend its rules for popular conservative influencers. Recent reports by BuzzFeed News and NBC News, based on leaked documents, found that Facebook executives had removed ‘strikes’ from the accounts of several high-profile conservative pages that had shared viral misinformation in violation of the company’s rules.”
There’s a lot to be concerned about here, and I don’t have an easy answer.