As a writer and reader, I’ve been perplexed by the post-election convulsions about fake news on Facebook. (Until recently, this was simply known as “someone is wrong on the internet”.) According to the internet outrage machine, Facebook should’ve been filtering out fake news.
Facebook’s argument—that it’s “crazy” that they might’ve influenced voters—is incoherent. Their business is advertising. The goal of advertising is to influence people. Especially around dumb but benign activities, like buying krill oil. (Draw your own conclusions as to whether those susceptible to pitches for krill oil might also be susceptible to fake news.) Facebook’s argument is also disingenuous: they’ve been explicitly experimenting with influencing voting behavior since 2008.
But the outrage machine is even less coherent. Of course, there is no algorithmic, objective way to determine what is “fake”. (Even fake-news profiteer Stephen Colbert struggled to distinguish his art from “just lying”.) The only cure is editorial judgment. Which is not how Facebook makes money. So this argument really boils down to “the news I insist on getting for free, from Facebook, is not very good.” (Until recently, this principle was simply known as “you get what you pay for”.)
For readers, the antidote to fake news is not to complain about Facebook, or Google, or any of these advertising companies who have no incentives to act (because for them, fake news = traffic, and traffic = money).
Rather, the antidote is to make better choices. Let’s open our wallets and support real journalism! After the election, I reinstated home delivery of the New York Times. I also pay for the Washington Post. And the Guardian. The Wall Street Journal is also great. In 1787, Thomas Jefferson warned of the perils of government without newspapers. As for government without Facebook—well, for 228 years, we muddled through.