Editorial: Facebook is a media company, whether it wants to be or not

Since the election, Facebook has been under fire by media outlets and users who argue that fake news on Facebook may have influenced the outcome of the election.

This isn’t a “crazy idea,” as CEO Mark Zuckerberg said in a Nov. 12 Facebook post, and his assertion that “more than 99” percent of news on the social network is “authentic” is just as absurd. A Buzzfeed analysis published shortly after the election challenged Zuckerberg’s claim, coming to the conclusion that the top 20 fake news stories outperformed the top 20 “mainstream news” stories in the days leading up to the election.

It’s worth noting that Zuckerberg eventually softened on the issue of fake news, admitting on Nov. 19 that Facebook does “take misinformation seriously” before offering a few potential solutions to the problem. Still, Zuckerberg stressed that “the percentage of misinformation is relatively small.”

The fact of the matter is that 44 percent of Americans consume news through Facebook, a number that Pew Research Center reported before the 2016 election. Because of this, even a “relatively small” amount of misinformation can be harmful.

But why is fake news such a big deal now and what has caused such an uptick in misinformation? It’s actually a conglomerate of issues.

The root of the problem may be that the term “journalist” is no longer easily defined. The modern journalist may work in a traditional newsroom or may be someone with a blog broadcasting to a number of online followers. The confusion over what news is in the 21st century has left a healthy opening for fake news to thrive, with countless sites now purposely publishing false or misleading articles.

Fake news latches onto this confusion, offering readers what they want to read (rather than what is factual and true) from sources with names that sound mostly credible. For instance, how should the average reader be immediately aware that The Denver Guardian or WTOE 5 News aren’t reputable sources without doing research on their own?

Fake news is also profitable. The goal, of course, is to produce ad revenue through page views, and Facebook’s sharing features make this all too simple. According to The Washington Post, Paris Wade and Ben Goldman, writers for fake news website LibertyWriterNews, made $30,000 to $40,000 a month between June and August. This is despite the site’s obviously false, clickbait headlines such as “BREAKING: What Was Just Found in Hillary’s Leaked Emails PROVES She Started the Birther Movement” (she didn’t) and “BREAKING: Hillary Clinton Just Admitted to Secretly Funding ISIS and Al Qaeda!” (once again, she didn’t).

While Wade admits that “there’s not a lot of thought put into” creating LibertyWritersNews articles, readers of the site often send Wade and Goldman messages like “YOU ARE THE ONLY ONE I TRUST TO REPORT THE TRUTH.”

For journalists, this is terrifying. With the “mainstream media” now the target of half of America’s antipathy (and a president-elect endlessly promoting this rhetoric), how do we reestablish credibility in a post-truth environment? In essence, what do people value if it isn’t facts? While this question can be cynically answered with “confirmation bias,” it’s up to the media to prove to those who doubt us that facts do matter and that journalism is a service that is designed to benefit the public.

But this is difficult to do when fake news is so readily accessible on widespread services like Facebook. So what should Facebook do?

The first step is for Facebook to recognize that it’s a media company where a large portion of the public reads news. In relation to this, Facebook must realize that it has a responsibility to combat the fake news that proliferates throughout news feeds. This solution could be as simple as differentiating between “verified” and “not verified” sources, a fix that a group of college students developed at a Princeton University hackathon in only 36 hours, according to The Washington Post.

Overall, it’s important that Facebook takes the matter of fake news seriously rather than downplaying it as Zuckerberg has, and it’s up to journalists and the users who consume news on Facebook to stress the issue.