The issue of fake news on social media has suddenly become a hot button issue, and Facebook has found itself square in the cross-hairs of public ire. The issue recently came to a head after an armed man invaded a local pizza parlor because a “news” article he read online said that Hillary Clinton has a secret child slavery ring based there.
At first glance, any rational person would hear or read something like that and say, “Sure, whatever. That’s the dumbest thing I’ve ever heard. How could anyone fall for something like that?”
Well, there are several reason why someone would believe something that outlandish. First and foremost, there are a lot of people out there who simply aren’t rational. Second, there is now a whole industry of trolls out there dedicated to creating fake news, and they’ve gotten quite good at it, to the point where fake news, by all outward appearances, resembles actual news. And finally, there is such a huge distrust of mainstream media, that increasingly people are turning to alternative and, shall we say, less vetted news sources.
All of this is creating a perfect storm wherein people are reading things on the internet that simply aren’t true, but are nonetheless being presented as fact. After public outcry, Facebook is taking some steps to trying and help crack down on fake news. In short, the plan is to create a feature whereby people can flag an article as “disputed.” People can still read the article, but they’ll be able to see a message saying the there are others who dispute the “facts” in it.
Cue people crying foul.
Immediately there was a backlash that Facebook was trying to “control” the news. The new measures, although sent to third-party fact checkers once flagged, are user generated. And they still don’t prevent you from viewing a disputed article. In reality, Facebook isn’t taking any false content off their site; they’re simply giving people a warning that what they’re about to read might not be entirely factual.
Despite this, there are still cries that this violates freedom of speech. Like this article, which warns that such measures limit the public from hearing “different points of view.”
Frankly, such arguments are bullshit, because anything that isn’t a fact really isn’t “a different point of view.” That’s a false equivalency. Saying that the earth is flat and gravity isn’t real isn’t “an alternate point of view”–it’s just plain wrong and not rooted in fact or reality.
Now, that isn’t to say that people shouldn’t be allowed to believe whatever they want. If you want to believe that the earth is flat or hollow or that vaccines cause autism or that lizard people run the government, fine. I can’t stop you. But there’s a difference between voicing your opinion and trying to represent your opinion as fact. One is clearly protected by freedom of speech while the other is not. Freedom of speech gives you license to say and believe whatever crazy thing you want without fear of imprisonment, but it doesn’t give you the right to proclaim it as fact.
An example. Person A posts something on their own Facebook feed that says, “I don’t believe vaccines work. I think that they cause autism, and I think parents shouldn’t vaccinate their children.” This is clearly someone’s personal opinion. Then there’s person B who creates a Facebook group with a title like, “Vaccine Research Group” and creates an article called “Vaccinating your children gives them autism,” which is filled with personal opinion organized in a journalistic format, but contains no factual information or citations.
There is a clear difference between what person A has done and what person B has done. Person A has expressed his or her own thoughts on a public forum. That, to me, is clearly protected by freedom of speech. Person B, however, has dressed their opinion up as journalism and represented it as fact. The latter is much more likely to influence someone to not vaccinate their children because they view it as a credible source–it’s news. This could lead to very real, physical harm in children. Which is what the difference is. Deliberately misleading people in a way that causes them harm goes beyond freedom of speech.
There’s a clear difference between being able to freely voice your opinions–which everyone has the right to do–and trying to represent your opinion as fact. The former is a critical part of a free society, while the latter is incredibly dangerous to society as a whole. The latter can get you in a whole heap of trouble, as Andrew Wakefield found out if we’re sticking with the vaccine example. He falsified research. That isn’t protected as ‘free speech.’ That’s fraud. And that’s what fake news is essentially–fraud.
As far as I’m concerned, the steps that Facebook is taking don’t go nearly far enough. I’d like to see Facebook create an algorithm that scans an article and looks at 1) how many citations there are, and 2) where those citations are from. Fake news has the potential to lead to great harm: further denial of climate change, dropping vaccination rates, increased use of “alternative” medicine that doesn’t work. And, as we’ve seen already, armed people invading pizza parlors. It’ll lead to further polarized politics, less discourse, and a greater misunderstanding of political and governmental processes.
In short, fake news is bad news for us all.