The dark irony behind Facebook’s fake news problem

In exchange for fake news, Facebook users handed over the only thing they still retain that has value in this new economy—not their labour, but their data

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg is seen on stage during a town hall at Facebook's headquarters in Menlo Park, California September 27, 2015. REUTERS/Stephen Lam/File Photo

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg is seen on stage during a town hall at Facebook’s headquarters in Menlo Park, California September 27, 2015. REUTERS/Stephen Lam/File Photo

A weird, maybe predictable, thing appears to have happened when Mark Zuckerberg decided in 2006 to call the cascading list of updates on Facebook a “newsfeed”: he suggested that pretty much anything can be news, as long as it was posted to Facebook. Your friend’s kid had a birthday party? That’s news. Someone ranted about their shopping experience? That’s news.

So perhaps it is no wonder people got confused when they saw posts in their newsfeed that claimed Hillary Clinton had a body double or that when Barack Obama spoke at the United Nations, he “told Americans that their freedom is over and new world government is taking over!!!” Anything can be news, so why not that?

This confusion was never going to end well. Still, it’s important to note how it ended: exposed after an election based ostensibly on ending or reversing economic blight, and on creating jobs for a down-and-out portion of what was once the heart of the American middle class. Because, while it’s worthwhile to discuss the damage done to the public discourse by the viral spread of fake news, or the subsequent perceived value of (for lack of a better term) real news, it’s equally important that the economic issue doesn’t get lost. Just as one dark aspect of Facebook comes to light, so does another—an aspect that undermines the economic viability everyone apparently wants to recover.

The problem, in short, is this: Facebook content is free. And this is not a problem just for news operations; it’s a problem for all of us.

As much as anything else, Facebook is a data mining operation. Each time someone joins Facebook and fills out personal information, or every time existing users share a post or a picture, or like a page or an article, or update their status, Facebook collects data that will be relevant to advertisers. That data is worth a lot. Facebook’s latest quarterly report states it earned US$6.8 billion from advertising (up 59 per cent from the same period last year)—the majority of which came from mobile ads. Last year, CNN reported that in the United States and Canada, Facebook was making US$13 in ad revenue off each person on its network, up from US$9 per person in 2014.

It stands to reason that Mark Zuckerberg would be reluctant to cull content on Facebook that is highly shareable, and thus highly valuable to his company’s bottom line—content like fake news, for instance. What Facebook wants, and what it needs to survive, is your information. More specifically, in order to continue increasing its profits, it needs to keep gathering your information at almost no cost.

In an economy that runs on information, that’s a very lopsided arrangement.

In 2013, in his book Who Owns The Future? Jaron Lanier argued that “the dominant principle of the new economy, the information economy” has so far been “to conceal the value of information… We’ve decided not to pay most people for performing the new roles that are valuable in relation to new technologies. Ordinary people ‘share,’ while elite network presences generate unprecedented fortunes.”

So here, then, is the darkest irony at the centre of the debate over Facebook’s role in the U.S. election: It is that, in reading and sharing all those fake news stories about Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump, Facebook’s users believed they were gaining information about their world, however slanted or false that information might have been. But what was really going on was that, the more time they spent on Facebook, the more those solutions they were apparently yearning for—more jobs, a stronger economy—were becoming less and less plausible.

For during their searching and clicking and sharing and commenting, they were handing over the only thing they still retain that has value in this new economy—not their labour, but their data. In other words, the more they read on Facebook about how they would all become more economically disenfranchised, the more they became economically disenfranchised. They gave that information away willingly and got what in return? They didn’t get paid. They didn’t earn a penny. All they got was false information that confirmed their worst assumptions about their fellow citizens and distorted their view of the world.

The data they handed over for free will now continue to enrich a very small group at the top of the information economy food chain, while it continues to offer them almost nothing in return, apart from more fake news stories dreamed up in some small town in Macedonia designed to deliver more data and thus more money to someone other than Facebook’s users.

And so on and so on.

In the days following the election, there have been demands that Facebook own up to its problem, and that it do more to curb the spread of fake news. It might, to some degree. But ultimately, its algorithms are only so accurate, so it will be inherently limited in its pursuit of destroying the fake news ecosystem it has allowed to flourish. Furthermore, why would it want to? Fake news makes it money.

Instead, Facebook will likely put the onus on users again, to do more work for free. Facebook will ask people to take an active role in discerning Facebook content. They’ll ask us to do something. And of course, Facebook users can do something. We can leave Facebook. We can solve two problems at once.

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