Facebook announced today that they’ll finally address the spread of “fake news” in newsfeeds by flagging baseless articles as “disputed by third-party fact checkers.”
Despite Facebook’s denial that it’s a media company—clinging instead to the nebulous label “tech company”—they are one of the largest sources of news for Americans. With this new initiative, in which Facebook has enlisted the help of Poynter’s prestigious International Fact-Checking Network, they’re finally acting like it.
Until now, there was no vetting process for what could be presented as news, with heavily-researched and rigorously-confirmed reporting from outlets like the New York Times being presented the same way as paranoid conspiracy theories—and outright lies—from Uncle Bob’s blog. After the election, critics blamed Facebook for allowing the viral spread of misinformation, leading to the miseducation of the voting population.
No matter what the company calls itself, Facebook is a news source, and that position in our society comes with huge responsibility; specifically, to seek out the truth and prevent the spread of misinformation. Mark Zuckerberg should have initiated this much sooner, but Facebook is moving in the right direction by doing it now—even if it is a few years behind the curve.
We shouldn’t hold out hope that flagging falsehoods will prevent the deluded from believing them just as much—and maybe with even more conviction.
Still, there’s one big problem: too many people don’t care about, or believe in, facts.
Ninety-seven percent of the world’s scientists believe in global warming, but that hasn’t stopped the president-elect from claiming it’s a hoax or his followers from believing his absurd assertion.
There was zero evidence of a child sex trafficking ring at Washington D.C. pizzeria Comet Ping Pong, but that didn’t stop Edgar Maddison Welch from firing an assault rifle into the restaurant.
There was a huge uptick in hate crimes after the election, but that hasn’t stopped bigots from pretending these crimes were faked to make the alt-right look bad.
Most importantly, the countless, easily-proven lies Donald Trump told during the campaign, and since, didn’t dissuade people from voting for him.
This year, Oxford Dictionary named “post-truth” its word of the year.
After all of that, and so much more, why would we believe that evidence of inaccuracy would suddenly start to make a difference to people who have proven time and time again that they consider facts irrelevant?
Many conservatives have already expressed the belief that fact checkers in general have a liberal bias because liberal politicians’ claims are more frequently concluded to be “true” or “mostly true” than those of their conservative counterparts. In yet another act of belief-over-evidence, they’re convinced that the discrepancy is due to bias on the part of fact checkers, not because conservative politicians peddle more lies—especially Trump, an outlier whose penchant for fabrication makes the stereotypically dishonest politician look like a truth-serum-swigging nun.
Pro-Trump readers and sharers of false information have even begun to corrupt the term “fake news,” using it to refer to any reports they don’t like. This is telling about how they view fact checkers and reporters. They now accuse fact checkers and reporters of their own behavior; that is, labeling certain claims as false not because they are, in fact, verifiably false, but because they don’t agree with them. What good is a fact checker when the misinformed will view him or her as a pawn of a vast liberal conspiracy?
Hannah Arendt explained this phenomenon best in The Origins of Totalitarianism. “One of the greatest advantages of the totalitarian elites of the twenties and thirties was to turn any statement of fact into a question of motive,” she wrote. And in another passage: “Before mass leaders seize the power to fit reality to their lies, their propaganda is marked by its extreme contempt for facts as such.”
Arendt was talking about Nazis and propaganda, but as we’ve seen recently, the parallels between that time and this are striking.
Helping those of us who actually care about the difference between truths and lies is important. Facebook is doing the right thing by bringing fact checkers on board. But we shouldn’t hold out too much hope that flagging falsehoods will prevent the deluded from believing them just as much—and maybe with even more conviction than before. Lies have become resistant to truth, like a strain of tuberculosis that’s no longer killed by antibiotics. If we can’t fight falsehood with fact, we’ll have to find another way. And fast.