There’s a rule of thumb in journalism that says three of anything is a trend. If that’s true, then the world’s largest social network is in the middle of one very tough trend. In the last week or so, the company has been absorbing criticism on three separate fronts, from embarrassing gaffes to potentially helping sway the results of that election—in multiple ways.
Facebook = election influencer?
Let’s start at the top: with the election. Donald Trump’s victory surprised a lot of people, and one reason—say the Monday morning quarterbacks—is that Facebook and other social networks are how many people now get their news, which is creating bubbles where subscribers see primarily content that supports their own positions and politics.
That’s sort of the point of a social network, of course, to show you content you’ll like, but it can lead to unrealistic expectations of how the country will vote and potentially suppress turnout as voters get an inaccurate picture of the closeness of the contest.
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But wait, it gets worse for Facebook. It turns out that a great deal of that content comes from sketchy fringe sites that share unverified and often outright false stories. Some of those stories can quickly spread far and wide, and even when they are later debunked, the corrections seldom get the same level of attention. The New York Times cites a false story claiming Pope Francis endorsed Trump being shared almost a million times, while the correction was “barely heard.” Another false story, the paper noted, “claim[ed] that an F.B.I. agent connected to Mrs. Clinton’s email disclosures had murdered his wife and shot himself.”
Facebook founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg took to his site to defend the company and minimize the problem, claiming “more than 99 percent of what people see is authentic,” whatever that means. He also warned:
“Identifying the ‘truth’ is complicated. While some hoaxes can be completely debunked, a greater amount of content, including from mainstream sources, often gets the basic idea right but some details wrong or omitted. An even greater volume of stories express an opinion that many will disagree with and flag as incorrect even when factual.”
That may be true, as far as it goes, but when I look at my Facebook feed, I see lots of stories from sources I have never heard of anywhere else, seemingly designed to inflame my partisan passion, that appear to have only a passing interest in facts. I bet your feed looks pretty similar, no matter what part of the political spectrum you fall on. Despite Zuck’s protestations, it’s hard to see how that is doing anyone much good.
Update: This morning Gizmodo reported that Facebook planned to address the issue back in May with a News Feed update that would have identified fake or hoax news stories. According to a Gizmodo source, the change would have "disproportionately impacted right-wing news sites by downgrading or removing that content from people’s feeds," and was subsequently shelved at least partly due to fear of upsetting conservatives.
The election was only part of Facebook’s woes. Related to the “bubble” issue was ProPublica’s revelation that Facebook advertisers could target and exclude readers by “ethnic affinities.” Troublingly, that includes ads for things such as housing, credit and employment, which has rightly alarmed civil rights activists and many others.
Last week the company changed its advertising rules to stop the practice for those three areas and said it would work to inform advertisers of their non-discrimination responsibilities. But again, it’s hard to imagine what Facebook was thinking to allow such an obvious opportunity for discrimination until it was called out for it.
Not dead yet
While nowhere near as serious, Facebook’s third bungle last week came when the company inadvertently marked the profiles of an unknown number of subscribers as deceased.
The company was forced to issue an apology and bring everyone back from the dead:
"For a brief period today, a message meant for memorialized profiles was mistakenly posted to other accounts. This was a terrible error that we have now fixed. We are very sorry that this happened and we worked as quickly as possible to fix it.”
For Facebook, it was an embarrassing cap to a very, very bad week.