Social media has unpredictable effects on politics; old organizing methods much less effective; and the fake news crackdown

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Facebook, especially, among social media companies is getting a lot of scrutiny now for the way its news feeds skew reader perception of the news, sometimes with “fake” or “baited” stories, with the latest piece by the New York Times Nov. 12 by Mike Isaac.

I had covered this toward the end of my piece on the possible threat to citizen journalism on Nov. 7, one day before the election.  Some commentators say that Facebook’s algorithm for feeding news to users gave Trump an unusual advantage in the election, something comparable to a deep Knight post in a chess game.

The “problem” is that users get feeds based on their previous likes and other behaviors, among “friends” and pages that they “follow”.  People tend to follow and befriend others with similar worldviews.

The same people are less likely to get establishment-sourced news from newspapers or television.

We can think about the way people get news all the way back to the 1950s, when most movie theaters started shows with news reels (I especially remember those from the Korean War) which could give the government and large companies a platform for politically loyal propaganda.  Then television gradually took over.

Indeed, I remember looking forward to seeing the morning Washington Post on the sidewalk (finding out how the Senators did in a Midwest night road game – the old “A’s Hop on Pascual,, Too. 6-1” thing), and another paper, the Evening Star, before dinner.  It was from the Star that I first learned about Sputnik in 1957.

And in 1959-1960 we had a history teacher who gave pop quizzes on current events.  We had to read JFK’s “Profiles in Courage” before JFK was elected.

My own Facebook news feed is pretty balanced – a lot of hysteria from both sides.  I’m inundated by Survival Mom and the doomsday prepper crowd, because I’ve posted a few links to stories about EMP and solar storms and to possible efforts by Peter Thiel and Taylor Wilson to prepare long term solutions to power grid security problems (I surmise that Donald Trump is interested in this now but hasn’t said so publicly).  I also see alarmingly strident posts from normally “upscale” gay white men about Trump’s election.  I see a lot of identity politics.  I see a lot of everything, because my “following” market basket is indeed pretty balanced.  So I do see a lot of valuable “early warning” news stories on Facebook from smaller publications and pressure groups.

One result of social media is that people don’t feel that they need to be “organized” or to get out an organize others.  I don’t like to be recruited, or to recruit other converts or to chase people (1998 piece by me in the Minnesota Libertarian )  Conventional political operations as a career field seems threatened.  In earlier times, where only “gated” news sources had wide leadership, grass roots political organizing (the kind Barack Obama was good at in Chicago) was much more necessary.  But the unintended result in this past election might be that certain minorities (who are much less literate and savvy in their use of social media) simply didn’t feel prompted to get out and vote.

But social media (as I noted in the previous post) also perturbed how the “online reputation” problem, already growing and affecting the workplace by the mid 2000s, could be managed.  It would be much harder for governments or employers to silence people online when people had such powerful social media companies behind their backs. (That’s a good thing about the way the “dot com bust” was followed by consolidation of Internet service companies.)

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Facebook could do the public a service by offering an “optional” newsfeed, not influenced by personal “Likeonomics”, based on an “opposing viewpoints” concept as I outlined on a legacy blog.  Facebook could find 5-10 non-profits to provide peer review of the feed.  Maybe Facebook should set it up as a separate site.

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Update: Nov. 15

Both Google and Facebook are catching the “fake news” debate. Google can face criticism both over its ad network and its search engine algorithms.  There was a snow flurry when apparently search engines showed that Trump had won the popular vote (which is not true).

Google has announced a policy preventing the display of Adsense on deceptive sites, which presumably includes fake news sites, as explained in this Wall Street Journal article Monday.  The policy will prohibit the placement of ads on sites that “on pages that misrepresent, misstate, or conceal information about the publisher, the publisher’s content, or the primary purpose”.  I don’t see the policy yet on the Adsense page (as of Tuesday night at 9 PM EST) but it presumably can appear at any time. It would not seem to be directed at “amateur” sites per se.

Facebook’s stance seems more double-edged and is still evolving. I find different viewpoints online as of right now as to how serious it is about baiting readers with fake stuff.

Edward Snowden has discussed Facebook’s slow response to its click-baiting news feeds here.

Olivia Solon has a story on the Guardian that questions whether Facebook is serious about ending the click-baiting and exaggerations, here.  It also presents a “Trust project” to help users flag fake news indicators and suggests companies treat fake news the way they do spam blogs.  It’s not the same as defamation, but that’s another discussion. We’ll have to come back to this.

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Update: Nov. 16

Vanity Fair has an important story by Jeff Zucker, “The Real Culprit Behind’s Trump’s Rise“, about blending entertainment and real journalism.

Twitter seems to be taking action against “alt-right” accounts, although when I checked Milo was still there (USA Today story).

(Posted: Sunday, Nov. 13, 2016 at 11:30 PM EST)