Mark Zukerberg is embarrassed. Facebook is getting to be known as the Home of the Whopper. John Naughton writes that critics of the last election are focusing on social media:
Their baleful glare has fallen upon the internet generally and social media in particular. “For election day influence, Twitter ruled social media,” fumed the New York Times. “Donald Trump won Twitter, and that was a giveaway that he might win the presidency,” claimed Business Insider. And “Donald Trump won because of Facebook,” wrote Max Read in New York magazine.
Facebook was in the dock, though, for a different reason: it was claimed that fake news stories that had spread virally on the service had inflicted real damage on the Clinton campaign. Among these were stories that the pope had endorsed Trump, that Hillary Clinton had bought illegal arms worth $137m and that the Clintons had purchased a $200m house in the Maldives.
Twitter is Donald Trump's favourite medium. Some newspapers, such as the Toronto Star, kept track of the lies Trump told on a daily basis. But The Star works on a different model than Twitter or Facebook. After all, it employs editors. Not so with Facebook:
It makes its vast living, remember, from monitoring and making money from the data trails of its users. The more something is “shared” on the internet, the more lucrative it is for Facebook.
Just to put some numbers behind that assertion, research by BuzzFeed journalists discovered that “top fake election news stories generated more total engagement on Facebook than top election stories from 19 major news outlets combined”. The study found that over the last three months of the election campaign, 20 top-performing false election stories from hoax sites and hyper-partisan blogs generated 8,711,000 shares, reactions, and comments on Facebook, whereas the 20 best-performing election stories from 19 major news websites generated a total of 7,367,000 shares, reactions and comments. In other words, if you run a social networking site, fake news is good for business, even if it’s bad for democracy.
Victor Hugo observed that there is nothing so powerful as an idea whose time has come. There is, however, a corollary to Hugo's observation: There is nothing so powerful as a lie people choose to believe.