While a thorough analysis of the impact of fake news on the 2016 election will be an ongoing project, there are excellent reasons to believe that it was a real factor. For example, BuzzFeed’s analysis showed how the fake news stories outperformed real news stories. When confronted with the claim that fake news on Facebook influenced the election results, Mark Zuckerberg’s initial reaction was denial. However, as critics have pointed out, to say that Facebook does not influence people is to tell advertisers that they are wasting their money on Facebook. While this might be the case, Zuckerberg cannot consistently pitch the influence of Facebook to his customers while denying that it has such influence. One of these claims must be mistaken.
While my own observations do not constitute a proper study, I routinely observed people on Facebook treating fake news stories as if they were real. In some cases, these errors were humorous—people had mistaken satire for real news. In other cases, they were not so funny—people were enraged over things that had not actually happened. There is also the fact that public figures (such as Trump) and pundits repeat fake news stories acquired from Facebook (and other sources). As such, fake news does seem to be a real problem on Facebook.
It could be claimed that the surge in fake news is an anomaly, that it was the result of a combination of factors that will probably not align again. One factor would be having presidential candidates so disliked that people would find even fake stories plausible. A second factor would be Trump’s relentless spewing of untruths, thus creating an environment friendly to fake news. A third factor would be Trump ratcheting the Republican attack on the mainstream news media to 11, thus pushing people towards other news sources and undercutting fact checking and critical reporting. Provided that these and similar factors change, fake news could decline significantly.
While this could happen, it seems that some of these factors will continue. As president elect, Trump has continued to spew untruths and the attacks on the mainstream media continue. The ecosystem thus seems ideal for fake news to thrive. As such, it seems likely that while the fake news will decline to some degree, it will remain a factor as long as it is influential or profitable. This is where Facebook comes in—while fake news sites can always have their own web pages, Facebook serves up the fake news to a huge customer base and thus drives the click based profits (thanks to things like Google advertising) of these sites. This powerful role of Facebook gives rise to moral concerns about its accountability.
One obvious approach is to claim that Facebook has no moral responsibility in regards to policing fake news. This could be argued by drawing an analogy between Facebook and a delivery company like UPS or Fedex. Rather than delivering physical packages, Facebook is delivering news.
A delivery company is responsible for delivering a package intact and within the specified time. However, it does not have a moral responsibility regarding what is shipped. Suppose, for example, that businesses arose selling “Artisanal Macedonian Pudding” and purport that it is real pudding. But, in fact, it is a blend of sugar and shit that looks like pudding. Some customers fail to recognize it for what it is and happily shovel it into their pudding port; probably getting sick—but still loving the taste. If the delivery company were criticized for delivering the pudding, they would be right to say that they are not responsible for the “pudding”—they merely deliver packages. The responsibility lies with the “pudding” companies. And the customers for not recognizing sugary shit as shit. If the analogy holds, then Facebook is just delivering fake news as the delivery company delivers “Macedonian Pudding” and is not morally responsible for the contents of the packages.
A possible counter to this is that once Facebook knows that a site is a fake news site, then they are morally responsible for continuing to deliver the fake news. Going with the delivery analogy, once the delivery company is aware that “Artisanal Macedonian Pudding” is sugar and shit, they have a moral obligation to cease their business with those making this dangerous product. This could be countered by arguing that as long as the customer wants the package of “pudding”, then it is morally fine for the delivery company to provide it. However, this would seem to require that the customer knows they are getting sugar and shit—otherwise the delivery company is knowingly participating in a deceit and the distribution of a harmful product. This would seem to be morally wrong.
Another approach to countering this argument is to use a different analogy: Facebook is not like a delivery company, it is like a restaurant selling the product. Going back to the “pudding”, a restaurant that knowingly purchased and served sugar and shit as pudding would be morally accountable for this misdeed. By this analogy, once Facebook knows they are profiting from selling fake news, they are morally accountable and in the wrong if they fail to address this. A possible response to this is to contend that Facebook is not selling the fake news; but this leads to the question of what Facebook is doing.
One way to look at Facebook is that the fake news is just like advertising in any other media. In this case, the company selling the ad is not morally accountable for the content of the ad of the quality of the product. Going back to the “pudding”, if one company is selling sugar and shit as pudding, the company running the advertising is not morally responsible. The easy counter to this is that once the company selling the ads knows that the “pudding” is sugar and shit, then they would be morally wrong to be a party to this harmful deception. Likewise for Facebook treating fake news as advertising.
Another way to look at Facebook is that it is serving as a news media company and is in the business of providing the news. Going back to the pudding analogy, Facebook would be in the pudding business as a re-seller, selling sugar and shit as real pudding. This would seem to obligate Facebook to ensure that the news it provides is accurate and to not distribute news it knows it is fake. This assumes a view of journalistic ethics that is obviously not universally accepted, but a commitment to the truth seems to be a necessary bedrock of any worthwhile media ethics.