Imagine Facebook free of political posts – just cat videos, your sister’s vacation snaps from Hawaii, posts from friends and family announcing happy personal news… Wouldn’t that be great.
But Facebook has a problem. They drive revenue and traffic by giving users posts that they are inclined to “like,” so the users will keep reading. But the atmosphere has become so toxic in the fraught political environment that the company is in danger of losing users as fake news and nastiness drive people off the site.
One Facebook insider, speaking confidentially, says “There’s a real risk this is doing great harm to the brand.” Before the 2016 election, before Facebook became the world’s news source, the site accumulated a billion users by being a social network – a place where you could go to keep up with friends and family around the world. Political posts were a rarity.
Over the past two years, however, Facebook has transformed into a media site, making deals with publishers to populate the site with stories. It encourages users to post stories, “like” them and comment on them. This allows Facebook to fine tune its algorithms and target ads to users more accurately, thus making the site even more attractive to advertisers.
When it comes to politics, Facebook users are more likely to click on and share stories that rile the emotions. Thus, Facebook, unintentionally by their account, incentivized inflammatory news over serious news and this success paved the way for fake news.
Since the inflammatory posts are more likely to be shared, the most radical posts get the airtime. Once marketers got wind of this trend, they realized that carefully designed fiction could get people to click. As a result, our Facebook feeds are now clogged with vitriolic political content, much of it downright nuts.
According to Paul Mihailidis, professor of media literacy at Emerson College, “during the election, a lot of Facebook users just didn’t care if something was true. They saw it as a way to advocate.” Around the world the political environment is growing more poisonous, and media outlets that rely on Facebook users are pumping out headlines that play to fear and anger.
But what is Facebook to do? They can’t ban political posts. They make too much money with the current business model, and the more money they make as a news outlet the harder it will be to change that model. While CEO Mark Zuckerberg has commented publicly on his desire to stop fake news, it’s not exactly easy to develop an algorithm to detect truth. Nonetheless, if the issue of fake news and steaming political content can’t be addressed, users tired of the vitriol could look to competitors for an alternative. Snapchat, for example, is already siphoning users.
In the tech space, every superpower eventually faces its moment of truth – a turn of phrase that is more literal for Facebook. If the company can’t find a way to stem the tide of nastiness, it could face an exodus as users search for a kinder, gentler, “truthier” alternative.
For more information, please read:
Why Facebook Can’t Fix Fake News | Newsweek