Google and Facebook Can’t Just Make Fake News Disappear
Fake news is too big and messy to solve with algorithms or editors — because the problem is….us.
By danah boyd
Mar 27 2017
Increasingly, I’m frustrated by (and often antagonistic toward) the emergent narrative about how to address so-called “fake news.” My anger is growing, not only because as I write this I’m almost 10 months pregnant and grouchy, but also because I see the possibility of well-intended interventions backfiring. I understand why folks want to do something now — there’s a lot of energy in this space, and the underlying issues at play have significant consequences for democracy and society. Yet what’s happening at this present moment is not actually new. It’s part of a long and complicated history, and it sheds light on a variety of social, economic, cultural, technological, and political dynamics that will not be addressed through simplistic solutions. Racing to implement Band-Aids may feel good, but I worry that such an approach creates a distraction while enabling the underlying issues to flourish.
Let’s start with a common “fix” that I’ve heard in the solutionist mindset: Force Facebook and Google to “solve” the problem by identifying “fake news” and preventing it from spreading. Though I appreciate the frustration over technology companies’ ability to mirror and magnify long-standing social dynamics, regulating or pressuring them to find a silver bullet solution isn’t going to work. From my vantage point, this approach immediately makes visible three differently scaled problems:
1) No one can even agree on a definition of “fake news,” even though a ridiculous number of words are being spent trying to define it.
2) Folks don’t seem to understand the evolving nature of the problem, the way that manipulation evolves, or how the approaches they propose can be misused by those with whom they fundamentally disagree.
3) No amount of “fixing” Facebook or Google will address the underlying factors shaping the culture and information wars in which America is currently enmeshed.
What is “Fake News?”
I’m not going to try to create a masterful definition of “fake news,” but I do want to highlight the interwoven tropes that are at play. Discursively, this frame is used to highlight every form of problematic content, including both blatantly and accidentally inaccurate information, salacious and fear-mongering headlines, hateful and incendiary rhetoric produced in blogs, and propaganda of all stripes (driven by both the State and other interests). Throughout my career, I’ve watched the deployment of such slippery terms (including bullying, online community, social networks, et cetera) for all sorts of political and economic purposes, and I have consistently found that without a precise definition or a clearly articulated problem, all that is achieved from drumming up conversations about the dangers of XYZ is spectacle.
By and large, I mostly see “fake news” being deployed by folks as a new frame for pushing long-standing agendas and commitments. This is true for researchers who have long critiqued corporate power, and it’s true for conservative pundits who love using this frame to shore up their hatred for mainstream media. So now there are dozens of meetings being held on “fake news” as folks wring their hands to find a solution; meanwhile, pundits and advocates of all stripes are calling on companies to fix the problem without even trying to define the problem. We’re seeing some folks focusing intently on “accuracy” and “truth,” while others are more focused on how content produces cultural frames.
Inside the internet platform companies, meanwhile, folks are struggling to create content policies that can be consistently applied. I’m always astonished at how inconsistent people are about what should and shouldn’t be prevented under the umbrella of “fake news” — and I’m mostly talking to experts.
Opening up the process doesn’t help. When the public is asked to report “fake news,” reports stream in from men’s rights advocates calling feminist blog posts critiquing patriarchy “fake.” Teenagers and trolls challenge pretty much everything.
Finding a third party to turn to isn’t much better. Experts can’t even agree on who is a hate group and who is engaging in protected speech. (I’m partial to the SPLC list, but that shows my political bent. And even its list doesn’t account for all of the groups that progressives might want to label as hate groups.) Just ask folks where they stand on blocking tabloid journalism or Breitbart and you’ll see conflict immediately.