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Democracy Is Why Facebook Struggles

To fix fake news Facebook and Google are facing a major media backlash after their news algorithms surfaced baseless rumors during the Las Vegas shooting tragedy. The Atlantic’s Alexis Madrigal has called on Facebook to hire human editors to solve the problem and stop blaming algorithms for the mistakes. Unfortunately, Facebook already tried human-curated news, but ended up firing all of them after it suffered a massive backlash from conservatives’ allegations that the editors were liberally biased. To this day, Facebook regularly gets hammered by conservative outlets for their ongoing projects to moderate fake news stories, which conservatives fear could be systematically biased against them.

Why hasn’t Facebook been able to solve its fake news problem? Democracy. The American electorate has a fundamental disagreement over facts and the reliability of media outlets. More and more people are escaping into liberal or conservative echo chambers on TV and online, exacerbating partisanship and perceptions of reality itself. Facebook doesn’t have the luxury of dismissing large swaths of the electorate, like editors at major publications do. Establishment newspapers are engines of technocracy; they exist to suppress rumor. Facebook and Google have not yet made that very political decision and the 2016 election has made it all the more difficult.

President Trump interviews with Infowars regularly traffics in conspiracies. He also calls CNN fake news. Today, according to the Washington Post, Infowars had early stories implying Islamic terrorists may have been involved in the shooting. Most major media outlets would have a fit if Facebook and Google surfaced Infowars articles and flagged CNN as a disreputable site. Infowars is wildly popular. In a democracy, it’s not clear what Facebook and Google are to do when a large percent of voters believe information that is false.

One argument is that these technology companies should just suck it up, buck populist fervor and hire editors to quash sites that the establishment deems illegitimate. Unfortunately, that would leave them vulnerable to potentially dangerous regulations. During the liberally-biased-editors scandal, at least one powerful GOP senator questioned Facebook’s fitness to properly regulate its own news content and at least one former senior White House advisor reportedly wanted Facebook and Google regulated like utilities, which could give the federal government unknown, but potentially broad authority over content on social networks. I fear the day when Facebook news is regulated by the Executive Branch (let the thought of Trump appointees regulating Facebook news sink in for a moment).

Ultimately, it’s not Facebook or Google that journalists are angry with, but democracy. The Internet did democratize American politics and a lot of people don’t like the outcome. For what it’s worth, I do have what I think is a solution to the fake news problem: mass “deliberative democracy” (read more here). But, aside from my moonshot civic ideas, I hope journalists have some sympathy and recognize just how difficult of a problem this is. I’m not sure Facebook can fix these issues until American democracy is fixed.