How Facebook Became A Key Player In The 2016 Election
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How Facebook Became A Key Player In The 2016 Election

The polls have closed and a President-elect has been named, but the 2016 United States election news engine hasn’t shown any signs of slowing down. From Donald Trump’s meeting with Barack Obama at the White House to the President-elect’s first appearance on 60 Minutes, politics has rendered just about every other topic as noise. One of the most prominent stories currently developing out of the election, though, is Facebook’s role in potentially influencing its results.

Social media as a source of news

To understand Facebook’s role in the election, it’s important to first understand the ways in which users approach modern social media platforms. While there’s the obvious application of 1:1 and 1:many communication, for many, Facebook and Twitter in particular have become viable sources of news. According to a survey conducted by Pew Research Center earlier in the year, about 44 per cent of the general U.S. population admits to getting news from Facebook. Whether this news comes in the form of posts from friends or the Trending Topics built into Facebook’s Timeline, it’s never been easier to get caught up on current affairs while simultaneously checking out the latest in cute animal videos.

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Where this news revolution runs into trouble however, is in its algorithm. As reported on by The New York Times, not everything that is presented as news on the social media platform should be taken as such. Much like the rest of the Internet, misinformation exists and given the perfect storm of sensationalism and relevance, fake news stories can quickly snowball out of control. From untrue allegations that Pope Francis endorsed Donald Trump to – also untrue – rumours claiming Hilary Clinton made a payment of $400 million to ISIS, stories such as these scored the latter months of the electoral process. Given many users’ predisposition to treat Facebook as a source of news, this allowed for fake news stories to proliferate across the platform, even going so far as to land fake news stories in Trending Topics as a result of the trending algorithm noticing the virality of such stories. During a time when many people were facing conflict on a large scale.

Censorship and accountability

Where then, does the onus lie with regards to the presence of fake news stories on Facebook? While it would be easy to dismiss Facebook given its status as a communication platform and not an explicit hub for news, the fact that so many of its users utilize it as such, indicates a shift in its responsibilities. By taking up the mantle of a news aggregator – whether willingly or through user intervention as in Facebook’s case – it becomes the responsibility of the platform in question to ensure it is striking a balance between censorship of opinion and accountability of falsehood. Regardless of whether the role of gatekeeper is given to humans or an algorithm, the ideal outcome in a situation such as this would feature a degree of transparency. Both censorship and accountability exist in murky waters, in which definitions can vary from person to person.

Understanding that the entire user base of Facebook will never be happy with a single solution, providing users with visual and tangible insight into what makes something trend on the platform would at least aid in contextualizing the situation. Not only this, but implementing a process of identifying approved, fact checked stories akin to Google News, would help to educate users and better flag articles of contention. Regardless of the decision however, Facebook has found itself in a state of self-discovery as it strives to determine its place in the social media sphere. Is it a platform for communicating with others? Is it a news engine? Can it be both? If it hopes to maintain its forward momentum, Facebook needs to identify where it stands. Then, ironically, it will fall on the platform’s communication to educate its users and strike this precarious balance.

This post was written by Account Coordinator Ryan Blanchard. To get in touch or let us know your thoughts, visit us on Twitter @VeritasComm.