The epidemic of fake news is upon us. Or so our cultural leaders have decided. It's infiltrating our social media feeds and our Google searches, planting seeds of untruth with such sway over our opinions as to alter the results of the 2016 presidential election. The horror!
I, for one, am not convinced. I'm not convinced that fake news is more of a problem today than it was five years ago, or even 50 years ago. And I'm certainly not convinced that it played a vote-moving role in the recent presidential election.
But never mind all that. The public is angry. The media is angry. And Facebook has a plan!
Here are the basics: Stories deemed "fake" will not be removed from Facebook, but they will be "flagged," meaning a small notice will appear below them, stating they have been "disputed by third party fact-checkers." Facebook has enrolled media and nonprofit groups to do this fact checking. The first four are ABC News, PolitiFact, The Washington Post, and Snopes. If at least two decide that a story doesn't pass the smell test, that story will get the flag.
This is a clever business move by Facebook. The participants have stated they're doing this for free as a public service. But this service will help Facebook improve its algorithms, which decide what posts appear in your news feed. That algorithm, of course, is Facebook's top-secret weapon, since it's what keeps us coming back to the site day after day after day.
But despite how shrewd this moneymaking move is, it's still likely to be a disaster. Allow me to explain why.
For a lot of people who are attracted to fake news, this flag might start to look like validation. I mean, come on: People who buy actual conspiracy theories aren't going to be swayed by the fact that Facebook — or The Washington Post, for that matter — say it's not true that Mossad reptilians live in Ivanka Trump's brain. If anything, it might encourage them to trust such stories more, out of rebellion.
But perhaps more importantly, these "fact-checkers" simply can't be trusted to do the job Facebook wants them to do.
Mark Zuckerberg took pains to explain that he only wants to go after "clear hoaxes" and not target anything in the "gray area" of opinion. That's incredibly hard to do consistently well.
Fake news is attractive because public trust in the media has plummeted. Public trust in the media has plummeted in large part because many organizations suffer from worldview biases that tend to taint their coverage.
This is especially true of the organizations Facebook has picked. For example, PolitiFact has beclowned itself over and over and over again. For example, it rated as "mostly false" that premiums would rise under ObamaCare, or that "health insurance premiums are rising under ObamaCare." But, in fact, premiums are rising.
I don't think PolitiFact is evil. I don't think they're biased on purpose. That's why it's so insidious. The people are unconsciously primed to read what Camp A says under a negative light, and what Camp B says under a positive light.
I think Zuckerberg is sincere when he says he only wants to target hoaxes. And maybe that's what the people involved in this "fact-checking" enterprise will do. But it could backfire. Indeed, it could be a disaster.