It’s become fashionable in the wake of the US presidential election to blame Facebook for spreading fake news – news articles which, by accident or by design, are misleading and wrong. The theory goes that if Facebook had stopped the spread of such articles, Donald Trump might now not be the President-elect.
Let’s assume for a moment Facebook replaced its offending algorithm with human sub-editors. It would require an army of Facebook staff to vet every post, or at least those posts that had attracted a lot of Likes and Shares. Those Facebook staff would have to have fast access to facts about virtually everything any candidate ever said, so that they could cast judgment on whether it was factual. Then we would need to start worrying about whether the Facebook staff were biased, which is why Facebook replaced them with the algorithm to begin with.
Let’s look aside the irony that “post-truth” has been named by Oxford Dictionaries as the Word of the Year 2016. On the one hand people decry the questionable stories accelerated by Facebook. On the other hand, we accept that there is even such a thing as “post-truth”.
Now, clearly fake news should be called out for what it is. But instead of blaming Facebook we should be asking:
Where is personal responsibility?
Where is our ability to judge right from wrong?
Where is our healthy scepticism that not everything we hear and read is correct, especially on the internet?
By pointing the finger at Facebook, Twitter and other social media for spreading fake news we are abrogating our responsibility to be discerning media consumers.
By expecting everything to be fact checked before it reaches our eyes and ears we are admitting that we have lost the capacity - not to say that we are too stupid - to apply our own plausibility test?
By blaming Mark Zuckerberg, other social media, and everyone but ourselves for the US election outcome – and the outcome of the Brexit referendum before it – we admit we are gullible fools. Which media organisation could ever guarantee that it was always objective and factual? Whatever happened to Edgar Allan Poe’s imploration to “believe nothing you hear, and only one half that you see”?
Whether Facebook is or is not a media organisation is irrelevant.
Whether you supported Trump, Clinton or anyone else is irrelevant.
And the fact that the so-called liberal media on the US West and East coast, and so-called expert pollsters, got their election predictions so wrong only emphasises my point: we must go beyond our regular news sources – whether that’s Facebook, the New York Times or Fox News – for our daily reality check. We must ourselves be that army of fact-checkers Facebook might employ. Facebook would have to employ virtually everyone to check every fact. Which is why everyone must be their own fact checker.
That’s neither revolutionary, nor the preserve of academia and philosophers. Wake up, people! It's just common sense.