The New York Times recently carried an investigative story about how high ranking officers at Facebook attempted to conceal Russia’s use of the social media platform to spread false and distorted information during the 2016 US presidential election.
Here in Canada, the federal government will likely use its November 20 economic update to outline plans aimed at supporting the beleaguered news industry in this country.
There is a connection between the two — fake news on Facebook and the Canadian government’s wrestling with how to sustain journalism in this country.
Facebook is a digital platform and a world-straddling giant. The New York Review of Books reports that Facebook has 2.2 billion active users, which accounts for more than half of all people with Internet access in the world. That size completely dwarfs the reach of any traditional news organization on the planet.
Founder Mark Zuckerberg has spent years touting Facebook as a social connector and a progressive vehicle for the freedom of expression. “If people share more, the world will become more connected,” he wrote in a 2010 Op Ed.
But there is a dark side baked into Facebook’s business model. The detailed information that you and I willingly provide is sold to corporate and other clients so that they can micro-target us with ads and other information.
That is spooky enough, but Facebook’s enormous reach, coupled with the company’s reluctance to regulate or moderate content, also mean that the platform can be abused by authoritarian governments and an array extremists peddling false information and hatred.
Facebook has been used in Myanmar to promote ethnic cleansing of the Rohingya. In India, false rumours about a child abduction led mobs to lynch innocent victims. And in the 2016 US election individuals in the employ of the Russian government set up phony Facebook accounts to spread false information detrimental to Hilary Clinton and helpful to Donald Trump.
As the details of Russian dirty tricks emerged, Zuckerberg and other of Facebook’s senior officers delayed, denied and deflected, as the New York Times describes it. There is now talk of having governments regulate Facebook in some way, or of forcing it to act as a better gatekeeper for its own sprawling content. But either of those options will be difficult to attain or enforce, given the company’s size and lobbying clout.
Demise of news media
The ascendancy of Facebook and other social media behemoths such as Amazon and Google has been accompanied by the demise of the traditional media, including newspapers, radio and television which have had to make a transition to the digital age. Those chains and networks in Canada have studios, newsrooms, infrastructure and employees spread across the country. Facebook and Google, which began as digital companies anchored in Silicon Valley, do not have similar costs or responsibilities.
In fact, they do not even describe themselves as news organizations but they do scoop up about 80 per cent of the money spent in Canada on digital advertising. In the decade ending in May 2018, the number of newspapers in this country declined from 139 to only 88. During roughly the same period the number of workers in the news industry fell from 36 to 24 thousand. Doubtless there were other reasons for this decline, including technology replacing people, but Facebook, Google, and Twitter are a big part of the problem.
Some might argue that we no longer need national or local media because of the very existence of platforms such as Facebook. But of course that is not true. Facebook does not have a reporter at the local town hall, the provincial legislature or the parliament in Ottawa. Many people, particularly those in smaller towns and rural areas, receive little or no locally generated news when nearby newsrooms close, or are reduced to only a skeleton staff.
Traditional media are essential to the flow of trustworthy information that allows a liberal democracy to survive and flourish. They act as our guides to what is important enough to print or broadcast, and also to what is true and what is not. They have not been perfect arbiters by any means, but at least they deal in facts rather than the largely unfiltered and deliberately often false news that we receive on social media.
We don’t yet know what the federal government will provide by way of support to traditional media, but there are also personal choses that we can make. My daily news diet has included subscriptions to newspapers such as the Globe and Mail and New York Times, and to magazines such as The Walrus and The New York Review of Books. I listen to and watch CBC and CTV News. Because those outlets, particularly the newspapers, tend to be too establishmentarian for me, I also pay close attention to platforms such as Rabble.ca, The Tyee, and PressProgress, which provide a more progressive take on current issues.
So, use Facebook if you will to stay in contact with a small group of family and friends, but please rely on a mix of traditional and alternative media for news that accurately describes the complicated world around us.