One of the most unfortunate things that I learned in this past election is that in politics, truth no longer matters. In an ideal political environment, chronic, intentional lying would end a career. Or at least curtail it from progressing.
But we just survived an election in which the nominee for one party lied about ducking sniper fire, and using a private e-mail server, while the nominee for the other party lied so often that the independent Washington-watching organization, Politifact, has given a rating of Mostly False, False, or Pants on Fire to 70% of his claims that they evaluated.
And of course, because nothing in this world makes sense any more, the candidate who lied the most, won, even though he got fewer votes.
So in this political culture of lying, it’s no surprise that so many voters are suckered into believing outrageous lies. In addition to the lies spewed by candidates, voters are exposed to lies perpetrated by fake news sites. Many of these news sites choose to advertise on Facebook, so after the election some questioned whether Facebook has a responsibility for preventing these lies from spreading.
No, they don’t.
Facebook is a social media website. They provide a platform for people to connect with other people. If they began trying to monitor which stories were true and which were false, and then trying to weed out the false ones, they would only make the problem worse.
Imagine the first time Facebook blocked a story that wasn’t completely false. Users would accuse them of censorship, and then begin to wonder what else Facebook wasn’t showing them, or imagining that they were using their platform to sway voters one way or another.
If we can’t count on our leaders to tell us the truth, then it’s unreasonable and non-sensical to count on Facebook to do so. They shouldn’t lie to us. They shouldn’t post their on false stories. But we also shouldn’t expect them to “protect” us from seeing other false stories.
Pointing the finger at Facebook on this only prevents us from pointing the finger to where it belongs: us.
If we choose to believe bullshit, then we shouldn’t be surprised when we end up with bullshit. And that’s what has happened.
I read a few news stories today—from reputable, real news agencies—that commented on the fake news stories that traveled around Facebook in the days before the election. I saw one of them on my own wall, posted by a “friend” who missed the day in school where we were taught critical thinking.
The story claimed that an F.B.I. agent suspected in the Hillary Clinton e-mail leaks had just been killed in a murder-suicide. I didn’t click on the link—that kind of story sends my bullshit-o-meter up to the red line—but apparently it lead to a bogus story in the Denver Guardian. Worry not if you’ve never heard of the Denver Guardian. It doesn’t exist.
But despite the non-existence of the newspaper, plenty of Trump sympathizers (Clinton haters?) believed the story. And even more importantly, some undecided voters probably saw the story as well.
It’s not Facebook’s responsibility to tell us those stories are fake though. If we want a better country, one in which our leaders don’t lie to us, and they conduct themselves with a level of integrity that their offices should command, then it’s up to us to inform ourselves.
And I’m not talking about just ignoring “the liberal media” or tuning out Fox News. I mean we need to question every single piece of information we see in social media. Who’s posting this? What’s the source? Who wrote the story? What other work have they done? Is this entertainment, or is it news?
Facebook influenced this election simply with its existence. People shared “news” and news. They debated each other. They watched speeches. And, perhaps most importantly, Donald Trump found a way to harness the power of Facebook to help his fundraising (his self-financed campaign was one of his lies), and also to target ads toward specific segments of the population. Facebook is one of the best marketing platforms in existence today.
But we can’t expect them to tell us what’s true and what’s not. We need to do some of the work. We can’t just believe every “fact” that’s put in front of us. Just because something appears on Facebook doesn’t mean it’s true.
And until we begin looking at our candidates and our information through a more skeptical, questioning lens, the bullshit will keep rising to the top.
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