The third Facebook election shows the limits of the platform

Update: Facebook CEO and founder Mark Zuckerberg has responded to the criticism of the social networking giant in the lead up to the election. Speaking at the Techonomy conference on Thursday, he said: “Personally, I think the idea that fake news on Facebook — of which it’s a small amount of content — influenced the election in any way is a pretty crazy idea. I do think there is a profound lack of empathy in asserting that the only reason someone could’ve voted the way they did is fake news.”

However, in a statement to TechCrunch, Adam Mosseri, VP of product management at Facebook did indicate the company is looking at ways to tackle the problem in future, insisting they “take misinformation on Facebook very seriously” and already have a number of ways of preventing its distribution. “Despite these efforts we understand there’s so much more we need to do,” Mosseri wrote, “and that is why it’s important that we keep improving our ability to detect misinformation. We’re committed to continuing to work on this issue and improve the experiences on our platform.”

The original article continues below.

We’ve been talking about the influence of social media on elections for years, but Tuesday’s victory for Donald Trump highlights a pretty major pitfall completely different to ones previously acknowledged.

While I’ve written before about the abilities of rich, private individuals to mercilessly target the right voters to get their desired outcome, this is actually far more unseemly. Facebook’s ubiquitousness, penchant for filter bubbles and powerlessness in the face of an avalanche of fake news helped tilt this election in a way that few people predicted.

“One article proudly claimed to have identified Hillary Clinton’s ‘sex fixer’. It was actually former Labour leader Ed Miliband”

It’s not hard to see how. Forty-four per cent of Americans get their news through Facebook, which has twin problems: it shows you stuff you like, so your views are never challenged, and in the case of election years, the most shareable stuff is conspiratorial nonsense. This year’s highlights included reports of the Clinton family committing murder and suggestions that Clinton aide Huma Abedin was a terrorist. One particularly tragic piece of journalism proudly claimed to have identified Hillary Clinton’s “sex fixer”. Only, it was actually former Labour leader Ed Miliband – possibly the least likely candidate for the job in the world. No, really.

That, of course, is not helped by a candidate who took advantage of his base’s love of a good conspiracy theory: back in 2015, two-thirds of Trump supporters believed Barack Obama was a muslim, and 61% believed he wasn’t born in the United States. Trump stirred the pot on this for years, before disowning the lie, and falsely claiming that Hillary Clinton started the rumour all along. The press tried to call this – and various other lies – out, but by then Trump had had his supporters booing the mainstream media at his rallies for months. “CNN sucks” was a staple chant from an audience that were consistently told that outlets trying to provide fair scrutiny to their candidate was just another example of a rigged system.

(I should add, at this point, that hoaxes are not the preserve of a single political party. That meme doing the rounds about Trump boasting to People Magazine in 1998 that he’d run as a Republican because they have “the dumbest group of voters”? Completely fake.)

In short, Facebook has a lot to answer for. As Ed Wasserman, dean of the UC Berkeley graduate school of journalism, told Bloomberg: “Trump was able to get his message out in a way that was vastly influential without undergoing the usual kinds of quality checks that we associate with reaching mass public.”

“You had a whole set of media having influence without really having authority. And the media that spoke with authority, the authority that comes after careful fact checking, didn’t really have the influence.”

“The media that spoke with authority, the authority that comes after careful fact checking, didn’t really have the influence”

Bobby Goodlatte (a former Facebook product designer, according to LinkedIn) said similar on his Facebook (of course!) feed, writing that the company’s algorithms were responsible for promoting “highly partisan, fact-light media outlets”.

“[The] News Feed optimises for engagement,” he wrote. “As we’ve learned in this election, bullshit is highly engaging.”

Facebook, for its part, has done little bits here and there to acknowledge the enormous power it wields. Indeed, it was reports of human editors burying conservative news that led to an algorithm deciding which insane stories to share every day, but perhaps now the company will realise exactly how influential it truly is.

“If there’s one good thing to take from election night, it’s perhaps that we can put to bed once and for all the idea that all elections are rigged by a small elite”

A spokesperson told Bloomberg in the wake of Trump’s victory that “while Facebook played a part in this election, it was just one of many ways people received their information – and was one of the many ways people connected with their leaders, engaged in the political process and shared their views”.

Zuckerberg himself wrote a short post on Facebook that didn’t address the issues directly, but concluded that “we are all blessed to have the ability to make the world better, and we have the responsibility to do it”. You can see his full post embedded below.

Still, if there’s one good thing to take from election night, it’s perhaps that we can put to bed once and for all the idea that all elections are rigged by a small elite. One of the chief beneficiaries of Facebook’s fast-and-loose plays with truth, The Canary, published a piece claiming that the results of the election – showing a Clinton win – had been revealed a week early. It was clearly a website test that accidentally went live, as we now know for sure, given the results were completely off what eventually happened when real voters had their say.

At the time of writing, however, said article has been shared 830 times.

When it was first published, the headline for this article claimed 2016 was the first Facebook election. While Facebook launched in 2004, I intended that to be shorthand for “the first time Facebook demonstrably impacted on an election result”. However, it has since been pointed out to me that Facebook gave Barack Obama a huge boost in 2012, and talk of its influence for him was reported in 2008 too. Although Facebook was up and running at the time of the 2004 election, it was limited to university students until 2006. For that reason, I’ve settled on “third Facebook election” for the updated headline.

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