The experiment has escaped the lab and is running amok across our great land. Thanks, Facebook. Many once thought that social media would save us — that it would break down borders, unite the globe, make us smarter, happier and more engaged in the world.
I’m not sure anyone believes that anymore. Turns out, it hasn’t broken down borders, but rather helped create social bubbles where our beliefs harden. It hasn’t united us, but revealed how polarized we’ve become. It often hasn’t made us smarter, but instead tricked us with clickbait.
At this point, it’s clear that even Facebook’s founder didn’t anticipate how the site would be used and abused, or how foreign agents looking to sow some good ol’ chaos would game Facebook’s algorithms to subvert American democracy. Further, it’s apparent now that Facebook — and Google and Twitter, for that matter — didn’t look too closely at the money being exchanged to see who was paying and who was profiting from all the fakery.
Yet, at the same time these platforms — Google and Facebook, especially — were spreading misinformation and fake news like wildfire, they were also draining digital advertising dollars from the very news outlets that could combat those forces with real journalism.
That’s not exactly new: The news business has long been outwitted by these tech giants — lured by vast internet audiences, they’ve essentially provided free content to Facebook and Google, while the duopoly courted their advertisers — but I believe that the journalists who confronted that impossible choice ultimately wanted to deliver the news, even at their own expense.
And now Facebook is poised to change the rules of the game yet again. Struggling to repel fake news and the antagonism permeating the site, founder Mark Zuckerberg announced last month that it would deprioritize news in favor of posts from friends and family. It’s sent a shockwave through the news industry, much of which has strategically aligned its priorities with Facebook’s, and raised serious questions for consumers, for news outlets and for our democracy.
The situation is still shaking out, as you’ll read in staff reporter Daniel Walter’s cover story, but hope is not lost. Indeed, the value of actual journalism — say, the New York Times
or the very paper you’re reading — becomes really obvious when held up against flawed algorithms and fake news. With change coming to Facebook, however, you may have to directly seek out the news sources you like to follow, rather than counting on them to appear in the site’s revamped News Feed.