Facebook’s Fake News Problem and Its Conservative News Problem Are the Same Thing

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Photo: Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images

Back in May, Facebook came under fire for what was described “suppressing conservative news” in its Trending widget. (That’s the small box on the right side with “trending” topic names, until recently curated and summarized by a small team of editors.) “Among the deep-sixed or suppressed topics,” Gizmodo’s Michael Nuñez wrote at the time, were “former IRS official Lois Lerner, who was accused by Republicans of inappropriately scrutinizing conservative groups; Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker; popular conservative news aggregator the Drudge Report; Chris Kyle, the former Navy SEAL who was murdered in 2013; and former Fox News contributor Steven Crowder.”

Last week, Facebook fired that team of curators — not unexpectedly, though the change was likely hastened by the controversy over conservative news — and replaced the human selection-and-summarization process with an automated sorting procedure overseen by a smaller team. Human bias eliminated! Except that the new Trending widget immediately found itself in hot water after it selected and highlighted an article from a site called End the Fed reporting that Megyn Kelly had been fired for backing Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton. That article, in turn, cited the similarly dubious website Conservative 101. None of it was true.

So, somehow, Facebook has gone from having a problem “suppressing” conservative news to having a problem allowing fake news. I wonder if those two things are related?

The Kelly story promoted over the weekend is just one small example of the kind of content pumped out regularly by a large and lucrative Facebook ecosystem of right-wing political pages, explored in detail in The New York Times Magazine last week. This is the world of pages with names like The American Patriot, pushing highly emotional stories with only a tenuous connection to the truth. These pages are successful because engagement on Facebook — especially on political Facebook, and especially in conservative political Facebook — is generally fueled more by a given post’s ability to stoke passion in its readers, rather than by old-fashioned qualities like “usefulness” or “accuracy,” and, generally speaking, the people running politics pages on Facebook are less concerned with communicating correct information as a public service than they are by ensuring their stories are “liked” and “shared” with enough frequency to make money. Put bluntly, there’s money to be made off of conservative outrage, and very little incentive to do so responsibly.

No news organization is perfect. Yes, I am aware of the New York Times’ reporting that launched the war in Iraq. I am aware that on an hourly basis every news website of a certain size and scale is screwing up in some way. But the distinctly Roger Ailesian technique of a sustained barrage of soundbites and catchphrases and unfounded speculation has been particularly characteristic of conservative-leaning media since long before social media started to matter in elections. In 2012, historian and author Rick Perlstein wrote about the uncomfortably close relationship between the contemporary conservative movement and the mail-order scams and pyramid schemes that prey on its most passionate believers.

If the 2012 GOP nominee [Mitt Romney] lied louder than most—and even more astoundingly than he has during his prior campaigns—it’s just because he felt like he had more to prove to his core following. Lying is an initiation into the conservative elite. In this respect, as in so many others, it’s like multilayer marketing: the ones at the top reap the reward—and then they preen, pleased with themselves for mastering the game. Closing the sale, after all, is mainly a question of riding out the lie: showing that you have the skill and the stones to just brazen it out, and the savvy to ratchet up the stakes higher and higher.

A significant number of conservatives still believe that President Obama is not a natural-born citizen of the United States; as of 2015, one poll showed that 33 percent of Republicans still believe President Obama is a Muslim. The current Republican presidential candidate is estranged from facts entirely, and was no less successful in the Republican primary because of it.

Fox News and other mainstream conservative outlets know this as well as politicians do — it’s why Rudy Giuliani gets away with telling Fox News viewers to Google the phrase “Hillary Clinton illness,” and why Fox continues to chase theories about Benghazi, a trumped-up political fiasco that has long since been investigated and closed (don’t forget that it was the centerpiece of the first night of the Republican convention). When the most respectable conservative outlets steer so close to outright lying, you can imagine that their less accountable peers are driving directly into it.

At BuzzFeed, Craig Silverman writes that Facebook has fallen “into a fake news trap of its own making”:

People at Facebook have also told me they do not want to blacklist even the worst of the fake news websites, since that in their view is akin to editorial oversight and censorship. (The company is probably even more wary of blacklists after its Trending Topics editors were accused of suppressing conservative websites.)

The problem for Facebook is that the distance between fake news sites and the “conservative websites” they’ve been accused of suppressing is rail-thin. Each item in the list of topics Facebook was said to have been “suppressing” is a subject of as many wild conspiracy theories and hoaxes as newsworthy stories.

But to acknowledge this would be to lose the thin, filmy sheen of neutrality under which Facebook inoculates itself. To exclude openly mendacious sites like Breitbart for being misleading or false opens the company up to accusations of bias. The responsibility of flagging false articles now falls on users. But Facebook is an echo chamber. The people reading the Daily Caller and the Blaze do so because they’re already onboard. They’re not going to tell anyone it’s fake. People see what they want to see and believe what they want to believe.

The act of suppressing conservative ideas connotes the promotion of liberal ones, but that isn’t really an accurate depiction of what happened at Facebook. Facebook’s problem isn’t that it suppresses “conservative news” or allows “fake news.” It’s that those two categories are increasingly indistinguishable.