Is Social Media’s Responsibility Fake News?

May 14, 2018

Last month, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg faced the music. The music being Congress, aka, dozens of skeptical, inquisitive politicians whose Facebook knowledge rarely seemed to surpass that of a well-informed grandparent. Questions ranged from, “How do you sustain a business model in which users don’t pay for your service?” to “Let’s say I’m emailing about Black Panther within WhatsApp, do I get a Black Panther banner ad?”

The first answer didn’t solicit much more of an explanation than “ads,” and the second, in summation, was “no.” Zuckerberg and Congress made their points, exchanged some awkward words that ranged from accusatory to defensive, and many questions were left unanswered. However, it became clear that the main concern was this: What do you know about me, and how are you using it?

The Cambridge Analytica data breach affected billions of users. If you’re like me, you take a cynical (or perhaps, complacent) approach to user data and assume that your personal information is as accessible to any bad guy as it is to Elliot in Mr. Robot. But should it be? And what if those bad guys are using your information to create and distribute fake news?

I’ll admit, the mere phrase used to bother me. “Fake” is not a word you want in front of news. It’s an oxymoron, as news itself is supposed to be synonymous with the truth. However, with the 2016 U.S. election and cases of fake news influencing its results, it’s pretty hard to deny that foul play took the form of artfully targeted articles made of lies. (If you haven’t heard of Pizzagate, please look it up.)

Facebook, Twitter, Instagram…I’d bet anything that these platforms didn’t anticipate their massive influence on information sharing, or at least, not to this extent. According to Reuters, two-thirds of Americans receive their news from social media. But what happens when fake news circulates through bots, picks up speed and reaches people who believe it? Strong opinions are made even stronger, without much to back it up, like facts.

So, just how responsible are social media platforms when it comes to the generation and circulation of fake news? At some point, I think Facebook needs to be held accountable for the sheer mass of its influence and what that could look like, good or bad. When you have billions of people participating in a relatively scarcely regulated platform for information sharing, there are billions of things that could go wrong.

Zuckerberg claimed that Facebook was designed to share your life with family, friends and other people you wanted to connect with. Even if that’s true, he needs to realize what he’s created and the global implications when it comes to personal information, security and the free press. Just because everyone can technically be a reporter doesn’t mean that all news should be treated and interpreted equally.

It’s not all bad news for business. Reuters noted that out of those who use Twitter, 74 percent get their news from it. A gigantic percentage of people rely solely on a social media platform to acquire information, and that’s something worth tapping into from a brand perspective. If you’re a business wanting to contribute to the conversation through company news or thought leadership, Twitter should be an integral part of your communications strategy.

This also creates interesting challenges for PR professionals and clients that may have social channels, because at the end of the day, we’ve fostered an environment of mistrust. Sure, some are still blindly believing everything they read, but the “fake news” term is used more and more, often to describe news that isn’t fake at all. If people have the expectation that all news might be inaccurate, who’s really winning?

In a world where Mark Zuckerberg still can’t answer the tough questions and Facebook helped sway an election, it’s up to PR people more than ever to generate accurate and relevant information for clients. Regardless of your stance on social media’s responsibility concerning fake news, it’s best if we all contribute to the generation of the good stuff. Even if Elliot is still watching you.



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