FACEBOOK KNOWINGLY PROMOTES DISINFORMATION

Facebook (FB) facilitates an accelerating spread of disinformation; this is widely recognized and well-documented. (See my previous post on this.) Facebook allows toxic speech and dangerous misinformation to spread unchecked on its monopolistic platform. This affects and infects our public discourse and knowledge base, undermining the health of our democracy. However, stopping it runs counter to Facebook’s economic interests because increased activity, regardless of its content, is what increases its revenue. [1]

Recently, damning evidence has come to light of Facebook’s manipulation of its News Feed to favor right-wing sources that are known to be deceptive over trustworthy news sources.

In late 2017, Facebook was in the process of making significant changes in the computer programming code or algorithm it uses to determine which of the overwhelming plethora of sources each of us is shown in our Facebook News Feed. It claimed it was working to bring people together and to prioritize trusted and informative news sources.

It was uncovered recently that FB ran experiments with its first iteration of a revised News Feed algorithm that revealed it would dramatically curtail the dissemination of right-wing, less-than-trustworthy sites, such as Breitbart, the Daily Wire, and the Daily Caller. FB’s software engineers were told to modify the algorithm to reduce the negative effects on these right-wing sites.

A second iteration of the new algorithm was ready in January 2018 and its effects were presented to senior executives at FB. The data showed that it reversed the curtailment of right-wing, less-than-trustworthy sites and instead curtailed distribution of progressive-leaning, credible news sources. The presentation included bar charts showing the impact on a dozen or so specific news sources.

This second iteration of the new News Feed algorithm was, nonetheless, put into use, based in part on support from FB’s Vice President of Global Public Policy, Joel Kaplan, and right-wing-leaning employees working for him. (Kaplan would later loudly support his friend Brett Kavanaugh during Kavanaugh’s Supreme Court confirmation hearings.) This was not the first time Kaplan had acted to promote right-wing disinformation. For example, in December 2016, when an internal investigation found that a group of FB accounts, mostly based overseas, were behind a lot of the promotion of right-wing disinformation, Kaplan objected to disabling these accounts because “it will disproportionately affect conservatives.” He also has defended and protected right-wing sites that violated FB policies, opposing sanctions on them. [2]

The new News Feed algorithm expanded dissemination of content from the right-wing Daily Wire that routinely shares false content and spreads malicious stories such as ones describing being transgendered as a “delusion,”  calling abortion providers “assassins,” and labeling progressive members of Congress as not “loyal to America.” On the other hand, the new algorithm reduced dissemination of content from left-leaning Mother Jones magazine that provides rigorously fact-checked reporting and investigative journalism that has won it numerous journalism awards, including seven National Magazine Awards (three times for General Excellence). It has also been a National Magazine Award finalist 24 other times. In 2017, it won the Magazine of the Year award from the American Society of Magazine Editors.

In the six months after implementation of the changes in Facebook’s News Feed algorithm, FB traffic to trustworthy, left-leaning Mother Jones articles declined 37% from the previous six months. This means that the over one million Mother Jones followers and others on FB saw fewer of its articles in their News Feeds. On the other hand, over the summer of 2020, the deceptive right-wing Daily Wire had more Facebook engagement (i.e., likes, comments, and shares) than any other English-language publisher in the world. [3]

These data belie Zuckerberg’s claim when he announced the News Feed changes in January 2018 that the goals were “bringing people closer together” and fighting “sensationalism, misinformation and polarization.” He didn’t mention that he and FB were tipping the scales to favor less-than-factual right-wing sources.

Why did this happen? Facebook was tweaking its News Feed algorithm because user engagement was falling, which threatened its revenue and stock price. Zuckerberg and FB may also have wanted to avoid antagonizing Trump and the right-wing Republicans in power in the federal government, thereby reducing the likelihood that they would attack FB either verbally or through government investigations and regulations. Right-wing and “conservative” politicians had been criticizing FB for “liberal” bias (without evidence). A former Facebook employee said that it was made clear  that changes to the News Feed algorithm could not hurt Breitbart, Trump-advisor Steve Bannon’s mouthpiece.

Facebook uses its monopolistic power to determine which publishers’ content the public sees. This power of selective partial censorship and propaganda promotion is Big Brother-type power that we all should be concerned about and fear. Free speech in today’s America  is relative; it is based on how much money one has to broadcast one’s voice or on how FB treats you. Zuckerberg’s claim that he supports unfettered free speech is disingenuous given that FB tips the scales to favor certain sources and disfavor others.

FB’s marketplace power and dissemination of harmful disinformation need to be addressed by government policies and regulations. Slowing the spread of  misinformation and malicious content from a handful of the most active and therefore most harmful sites would have a dramatic effect.

Facebook should be held accountable for disseminating false, misleading, or inflammatory content. Regulation is one way to do this and competition is another. As a monopolistic platform lacking competition, FB has no incentive to do anything but pursue profits and/or Zuckerberg’s personal agenda. FB should be regulated like a monopolistic utility as the phone company once was or as private electricity and gas utilities are. Anti-trust laws should be used to stop FB’s anti-competitive practices and its acquisitions of Instagram and WhatsApp should be reversed. Competition should be facilitated, for example, by creating a not-for-profit, free to users, Internet platform for responsible information sharing and journalism akin to public radio and TV.

I’m not a heavy FB user so my expertise on its on-the-ground operation is limited. Therefore, I welcome your suggestions on how we can send a message to Facebook and Zuckerberg that will be heard loudly and clearly on the issue of the quality of content in its News Feed as well as other issues such as its repeated violations of users’ privacy. Would a one-day boycott where we don’t log into FB be effective? Or would a week where we never click on a FB ad be more meaningful? What else can we do? In addition, of course, to lobbying our elected officials to rein in Facebook and Zuckerberg with regulations and anti-trust laws.

[1]      Alba, D., 10/13/20, “False info thriving on social media,” The Boston Globe from The New York Times

[2]      Bauerlein, M., & Jeffrey, C., 10/21/20, “Facebook manipulated the news you see to appease Republicans, insiders say,” Mother Jones (https://www.motherjones.com/media/2020/10/facebook-mother-jones/)

[3]      Bauerlein, M., & Jeffrey, C., 10/21/20, see above

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