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We needn’t fall for fake news

By Ned Seaton

I have a serious problem with Facebook.

Facebook deals in appearance, illusion and fakery, and I don’t have time for that.

It’s too bad. A few years ago, I wrote that it was a pretty cool way to collapse time and space. It allowed me to reconnect with friends from different periods of my life, which I thought made me accountable to my past and future selves.

I also just liked seeing what people were up to.

But I eventually realized (I’m not terribly quick) that Facebook includes only the imagery people want you to see. That often amounts to deception, or at least a bunch of hooey, and it really began to bother me.

On a personal level, some friends have gotten involved in a really ugly battle that has involved fake Facebook and Instagram accounts created only to harass, trick and tarnish people. It’s awful stuff to behold; it makes me want to throw up to think about the number of people faked into thinking completely false things about one another.

More generally, you might have seen the news that Facebook enabled people to spread fake news stories — many of them purporting to prove criminal conspiracies involving Hillary Clinton — in order to drum up web traffic.

I heard an interview with the creator of many of those fake news stories who said advertising revenue through web networks (think Google) brought him more than $10,000 profit per month. He said he didn’t think he had helped tilt the election toward Donald Trump, but he did say the ethics of it all was starting to bother him.

I briefly thought, “Jeez, ten K? A month? Maybe we ought to start ginning up stories involving late-night conspiracy east of campus.”

I think I could actually be pretty good at that. But, as I always say, there’s not much need for fiction. Truth is generally funnier anyway. And I’m still making a living publishing the truth, or at least the best obtainable version of it, and it’s easy to sleep at night.

You might have also seen that somebody recently went to a pizza place in Washington, D.C., and opened fire with a rifle because of a fake news story about child sex slaves there in some sort of operation led by (of course) Hillary Clinton. Nobody got hurt, thank goodness.

There was also the story of the woman who created a fake Facebook account for her exboyfriend, then sent herself harassing messages from that account. The ex was arrested four times before the cops finally figured out the truth.

Then there was the story of the cops in California putting out a fake news story to try to catch a bad guy.

You can see where this all goes: The fox guarding the henhouse. It could be a harasser, or the cops, or the mayor, or the Russians, or just some guy trying to make a few bucks and have a few laughs. Once you equalize truth and deception, we’ve got a major problem in a democracy, where the people are supposed to decide their own fate with at least a rudimentary understanding of the facts.

Facebook makes money by selling ads, and it has almost zero responsibility for the content that people share on its network. It’s the ultimate Tom Sawyer arrangement — Facebook gets the users to do the work of creating the content and then makes money by selling ads to target the very people doing the labor.

What’s the solution? Facebook could employ editors, and require more verification of users’ identities. It has made some statements about trying to move in this direction, but it has also said that it is a technology company, not a media company. Google basically says the same thing.

So ultimately, it’s up to us as consumers and readers. We need to be skeptical readers, and we need to demand multisourced, verifiable information.

We could also ditch Facebook en masse, which is what my wife, my brother and some of my friends have done. But I assume people will remain addicted to the dopamine shot they get from calling attention to themselves, so that’s not a realistic solution.

It has to start with education. People have to learn, from a young age, how to read and think independently. They have to be willing to accept inconvenient facts, and they have to take a moment to wonder, realistically, if what they’re seeing is really true, and think seriously about where it comes from.

I had a hopeful sign the other day: My 21-year-old son said that whenever he feels the urge to look at Facebook, he’s going to click on the New York Times app. He’s genetically predisposed that way, and of course brought up that way, so it’s not much. But let’s leave it there. One is better than none.

Ned Seaton is editor in chief and publisher of the Mercury.









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