Over the past year, the tech giants have made drastic changes to their algorithms in an effort to combat the problem of fake news: Google is spending $300M to fight fake news, Facebook is showing fewer articles, and Twitter informed users if they have followed or re-tweeted Russian bots.
In their mad dash, the tech giants have revealed how ideologically unprepared they are for the task of dealing with misinformation and propaganda.
For starters, they are only now taking these actions in reaction to the election of Donald Trump, suggesting that they don’t appreciate how old and widespread the problems of misinformation and propaganda truly are. Fox News has been publishing fake news ever since its inception and single-handedly pushing the American population to the right, and yet, even now, the tech giants aren’t taking aim at one of the biggest purveyors of fake news in history.
Facebook instead will now attempt to improve the quality of news by ranking news sources based on ratio of people that trust a source relative to the number who are aware of it. This sounds like a neat idea until you consider that Fox News is the most watched cable news network and is trusted by more people than not. Fox News will do just fine with Facebook’s new algorithms.
What Facebook is attempting to do is take an apolitical position of non-partisanship and unbiasedness; but what they are really doing is reaffirming their commitment to centrist neoliberalism. You will never hear Facebook go after Fox News – it would cost them too much profit. Why neoliberals care more about profit than truth is a question for another day, but it is so typical of them to believe that the solution to the problem of misinformation is agnostic deference to the wisdom of the crowd, i.e. the invisible hand. They aren’t fighting misinformation; they are profiting from it.
Facebook’s ideological pursuit of unbiasedness has already led to Black Mirror-esque result like Facebook banning users for saying ‘all white people are racist’ but not for saying that all ‘radicalized Islamic suspects should be hunted and killed.’ (The reason being that the former was a general attack on a protected group, white people, while latter was an attack on a sub-group.)
The absurdity of such subtle distinctions is obvious, and it reveals the vacuity of a centrist conceptions of truth and justice. They do not see themselves as ideological in nature; instead they see the source of falsehood to be ideology itself and make no attempt to understand why some ideologies are more or less capable at identifying and explaining truth and justice.
But if we look back at history, we can see that centrists have always been ideological. 250 years ago American centrists believed that the superiority of white people justified their dominance over other racial groups. Today we recognize this as ideology, but back then this was so uncontroversial that it was deemed factual, and the slavery abolitionists were seen as the radical ideologues.
Today’s centrists haven’t learned from history; they still view the left and the right as essentially the same, and Facebook’s news ranking algorithms reflect this ideology: favoring the most popular and the most centrist publications. There is no attempt here to identify truth, and thus Facebook will do little to combat fake news.
Fighting falsehood and misinformation requires a more nuanced understanding of the relationship between ideology and perception of truth. Our beliefs dictate what facts we see, how we frame them, which we report/ignore, and how we contextualize them. Nobody is invulnerable to this, including the most reputable institutions.
15 years ago The New York Times published a large volume of articles parroting the Bush line that there were WMDs in Iraq and that Hussein was affiliated with Al Qaeda, even as it suppressed the publication of articles arguing the Bush narrative was fabricated. By any standard measure of truth, the NYT engaged in misinformation and propaganda, and it led to horrific consequences that still haunt us today.
Fake news is something that all ideological groups will publish; however, some do so much more extremely than others, and we need to be open/honest about this. The fake news problem is a right wing problem. As Obama said, we in the USA now live in two different realities: the right on one side, and the left and center on the other. It is extremely critical that both the left and the center acknowledge that we shared understanding of reality that the right has completely departed from.
But due to its own ideological biases, the center views the left as just as dangerous as the right. Because of this way of thinking, Google has swept up left-wing sites like DemocracyNow! and Truthout (hardly deserving the label of fake news) in its algorithm changes and their traffic has dropped 49%-71%. Black Lives Matter and Palestinian activists have been banned from Facebook and Twitter, with similar rules applied to them as to white supremacists.
The left can continue to try and convince centrists that wealth redistribution isn’t as dangerous as white supremacy; however, we may never win this fight, and in the meantime, we are extremely vulnerable to the whims of the tech giants.
If the left is to survive the consolidation of the internet, we need more than just blogs, magazines and publications – we need integrators and dissemination channels that are controlled by us. This is partially what I am trying to do with LeftTimes. But our project is just one attempt at creating an integrator; the left needs more.