Facebook, and the trouble in being everything to everyone
OXFORD Dictionaries has just named "post-truth" its word of the year. The timing certainly seems apt. Among the many recriminations unfolding in the wake of the American election are darts aimed at the press which, some argue, did an inadequate job during the campaign sorting truth, from half-truth, from innuendo, from outright fabrication. Interestingly, among those groups in the crosshairs is Facebook, which is now struggling to work out what its journalistic responsibilities are in this strange new digital age.
Facebook, which has nearly 2b monthly active users, is a media goliath. Users spend much of their time at the site interacting with friends and family, or sharing photos and videos. Yet Facebook is also an increasingly important location for the publication and sharing of news. According to a study conducted by the Pew Research Centre, 44% of American adults said they get some news from Facebook. Some of that news, as it turns out, is fake. During the campaign, wild and untrue stories from fake news sites were occasionally posted to Facebook, where they were shared widely. Facebook's algorithms sometimes gave the stories a boost, because they were popular. Yet Facebook has moved gingerly in its efforts to curate news or weed out fake stories, as such efforts disproportionately affect right-leaning pieces. Facebook is by no means the only web platform to face such headaches; Google has also had problems with fake news stories turning up in search results. But Facebook is the most influential.
Today, Tyler Cowen rises to Facebook's defence:
I wish to suggest a simple comparison: how does Facebook compare in this regard to email and forwarded emails? I haven’t seen formal numbers, but I strongly suspect emails have been a far more important source of misinformation about Hillary Clinton (and Trump) than was Facebook. (I do recall Matt Yglesias tweeting an estimate, and it sounded brutal for email.) That is especially likely to hold for the elderly, who use email far more than Facebook and furthermore were more likely to support Trump.
How about comparing Facebook to what other people tell you? What a load of crock they are. People, pshaw. Just think about their algorithms. At least Facebook has access to The Washington Post.
He makes a good point. In a 2011 paper by Matthew Gentzkow and Jesse Shapiro, investing the different but related issue of ideological self-segregation, the authors write:
We find that ideological segregation of online news consumption is low in absolute terms, higher than the segregation of most offline news consumption, and significantly lower than the segregation of face-to-face interactions with neighbors, co-workers, or family members. We find no evidence that the Internet is becoming more segregated over time.
That is, the news one receives online is more ideologically filtered than the news one receives in print, but it is far, far less filtered than the news and perspectives one finds in conversation with friends, neighbours and colleagues. So that's good. That does not mean there is no reason for concern, however.
One problem might be that people treat news found at Facebook with the authority of news gleaned from publications generally, even though news found at Facebook more often resembles the news gleaned from conversations with friends and family. People might practice a sort of mental discounting when encountering new information in different settings; I am less inclined to fully trust a factoid passed along by a stranger at a bar than I would be to trust something reported in a major newspaper. Facebook could throw this sort of discounting off, and lead users to too readily accept "news" (which after all is appearing on a major media platform) which is only a little more informative than what one receives in an email forward.
Put differently: whether Facebook's access to established and reliable publications means that it is a better source of news than a chain email depends on whether readers adjust their trust discounting algorithms appropriately when shifting from reading emails to reading news on Facebook.
Another problem is simply that the economics strongly favour the production and distribution of slanted news. Messrs Gentzkow and Shapiro conclude their paper by writing:
It is true that the Internet allows consumers to filter news relatively freely, but it has not changed the fact that reporting or writing stories that are tailored to a particular point of view is costly. There is no computer program that can take a story written with liberal slant as input, and output an account of the same facts written with conservative slant. One could imagine a news site that presented the neo-Nazi perspective on all of the day’s events: firsthand neo-Nazi reports from a hurricane in Florida, a neo-Nazi perspective on the Superbowl, and so forth. But such a site does not exist, to our knowledge, likely because the neo-Nazi audience is too small to make such an investment worthwhile, and the preferences of neo-Nazis for many stories are not actually all that different from those of the average consumer.
This paragraph might have rung true five years ago; it is less convincing today. Politics has increasingly intruded upon all realms of society, including sports and weather, and the proliferation of news sites which do provide a particular ideological perspective across a broad array of subjects suggests that such models work. Between this trend and increasing geographic polarisation of American society, it is ever easier to live most of one's life in a bubble. Most, but not all; there is not, for the moment, a Democratic or a Republican Facebook. Social networks thrive on network effects: people want to be there because everyone else is there. Intense partisan polarisation can upend such network effects; in some circumstances, the presence of people with opposing viewpoints could reduce the vaue of being on the network rather than raising it. Facebook's success therefore depends on its being able to capitalise on positive network effects while allowing users to segregate themselves away from groups which would otherwise undercut the value of the network. It is that tension which is creating problems for the firm's efforts to become a leading source of news.
This is from Nov 16th 2016, 18:59 by by R.A. | WASHINGTON