If you’ve spent any time on Facebook in the last couple of days, it would be hard to miss the recent initiative to address the fake news phenomenon. Facebook is putting users in the drivers seat, offering education on ways to discern reality from fiction when it comes to Facebook content. This is the latest attempt of many tech companies, who have recently found themselves in the midst of controversy about how their platforms enable the spread of mis-information. From social media platforms like Twitter, Snapchat and Facebook, to message boards and media distribution companies like Reddit and Apple, the response to this recently uncovered issue has varied greatly.
I don’t plan on getting into the specifics of fake news and how various companies are addressing it in this post. Many others have done this quite well; one particular synopsis I have found helpful is this piece in Co.Design: Inside The Fake News Fight At Apple, Snapchat, Facebook, And More.
While I do see the specific phenomenon of fake news as a large issue that must be addressed, I see the fact that it has recently come to light as merely an interesting symptom of a much larger issue at the core of how the structure of social media — Facebook specifically — has effected our culture. I can’t help but ask the question: are we all really that surprised at what we saw happen during the 2016 presidential election? Fake news is a symptom of the structure of Facebook itself; a structure that encourages — and even necessitates — forms of misinformation like fake news.
Facebook fosters interaction with news that is identity driven rather than having rationality at its core.
Philosopher Jaques Ellul argues in his book The Technological Society that our tools are “ontologically tied together [and] inseparable from [their] being.” Ellul discusses the example of the newspaper: “The content of our newspapers,” he says “is necessitated by the social form imposed on man by the machine.”
In other words, every technology necessitate a certain use, a particular tone or mindset of content throughput.
Therefore I ask, what type of content is “necessitated by the social form” of Facebook? I argue that misinformation like fake news and alternative facts are at the heart of Facebook’s ontology… a consequence of what I call: The Fakebook Effect.
The Man who is a wall
One particularly fascinating result of all electric technologies are their effect on physical space. Before electric technology, the dissemination of information was restricted by speed at which that message could travel. A written message couldn’t be delivered any faster than it was able to be physically carried. With the advent of the telegram, this spacial restriction on our communication was eliminated.
We see a similar effect with regards to time when it comes to our social media platforms. Just as the telegram eliminated the restriction of space on our communication, social media platforms like Facebook free us from the restrictions of time. Facebook allows us to create, maintain, and curate a digital representation of ourselves through our profiles…a digital extension of self that suspends both time and space as it is accessible to virtually anyone, anywhere, and at anytime.
Anthropologist Amber Case discusses this in her Ted Talk: “We Are All Cyborgs Now.”
“You have a second self. Whether you like it or not, you’re starting to show up online and people are interacting with your second self when you aren’t there. And suddenly we have to maintain our second self and you have to present yourselves in digital life in a similar way that you would in your analog life… it’s not that we are always connected to everybody, but at any time we can connect to anyone that we want.”
This phenomenon necessitates a certain curation of our digital selves that is, at its core, what social media is. Every platform does this a little differently, but they typically revolve around this creation and maintenance of a digital extension of ourselves.
If you don’t know me, but want to get an idea of what I stand for, my sense of humor, what I look like, who my friends are, etc. the first place you will probably go is to Facebook. Upon finding my profile, you will be confronted with The Wall: my digital curation of self, offering you a picture of who I am (or who I want to be). From an artistically edited profile picture to my carefully curated list of article links (just incase you wondered where I stand on immigration, women’s rights, abortion, fill in the blank), my Facebook wall is intended to give you the most accurate representation of how I want to be perceived…the man who is a wall.
The Fakebook Effect
So what does this have to do with fake news? Well, Facebook being built around this structure of the profile or wall, elicits a certain type of information sharing. Facebook has socialized us to use its service in the act of digital curation of our selves. Whether you consciously craft the Wall version of yourself with pictures, likes, opinions, etc., or you merely consume and share news via your Facebook feed, our interactions on Facebook are all acts of establishing our digital persona. Every click-through, every like you give, every photo you post, is a small building block to your virtual self…and therein lies the problem.
When posting a photo, the social interaction that tools like Facebook and Instagram foster encourages a certain degree of distortion or cropping of truth; think of it as an Instagram filter on reality. When you see my photo with a carefully chosen filter of my morning latte (with just the right balance of beauty and imperfection), you may feel a tinge of jealousy. But you don’t see the chaos that my kitchen is in after the endeavor; you don’t hear my 8mo old son who is hungry because his father is too busy curating his digital self to feed him his breakfast.
Our interactions with news on Facebook can play a similar role. Whether conscious or not, every click, every share on Facebook is an act of approval or endorsement. “This is worthy of my attention, and the attention of others” we say with our thumbs; “I want the digital extension of myself to be associated with this.” In this way, I can be an activist for whatever causes I want to be associated with. How many of us actually use Facebook as an avenue for thoughtfully fostering both sides of a particular issue. If so, how many times have you posted a well articulated and thoughtful argument for something you disagreed with? What it would it mean for the digital persona of an abortion rights activist to post a well articulated case for a pro-life viewpoint? Suicidal! I have yet to see someone’s opinion on something be changed because of a well articulated Facebook commenting tirade, and yet we continue ahead with fervor because we are adding evidence to our digital personas.
And this is at the heart of Facebook’s information sharing ecosystem, and the primary driving factor for fake news itself; Facebook fosters interaction with news that is identity driven rather than having rationality at its core. Because Facebook is a platform built for the purpose of digital persona curation, we disseminate information that fits into a worldview that we want to be associated with. A like or share of a piece of fake news is less about a belief that it is true, and more about a worldview that the sharer would like to be associated with. The subconscious thought that goes into a like or share of a piece of fake news isn’t “I believe this to be a rationally sound and thoughtful argument” but rather “this affirms a reality to which I would like to subscribe, and wouldn’t mind if others associated me with.”
All tools we use provide us with a certain degree of buy-in as to how we use them. Facebook can be used for the spread of truth as well as fake news. But Facebook purports a structure of discerning truth from opinion that is based on identity curation rather than rational argument.