As the political establishment and news media cast about for explanations for Donald Trump’s upset victory in the presidential election – better known as “the blame game” – Facebook has emerged as a surprisingly popular target, on the theory that it allowed “fake news” stories to circulate, and that its News Feed functions as an echo chamber, failing to expose voters to alternative points of view.
On Thursday, Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg fired back at the notion that Facebook somehow swayed the electorate, telling the audience at the Techonomy conference in California: “The idea that fake news on Facebook influenced the election in any way is a pretty crazy idea.” Instead, he argued, voters “make decisions based on their lived experience.”
Overall, he asserted, “There is a profound lack of empathy in asserting that the only reason someone could have voted the way they did is because they saw fake news... If you believe that then I don't think you have internalized the message Trump supporters are trying to send in this election.”
In the same vein, it’s worth noting that plenty of real news – which also circulated on social media – was unfavorable to Trump’s Democratic opponent Hillary Clinton, ranging from her email scandal to her involvement with the family’s foundation while Secretary of State, to her comments about Trump supporters being “deplorables.” So there was plenty of ammunition for Trump supporters to attack Clinton without having to resort to fake news.
Further, the attempt to pin blame for the election result on fake news stories on Facebook ignores the fact that there is nothing new about this phenomenon, as falsehoods, slander and innuendo have been part of American politics from the very beginning. As President John Adams memorably noted, the early elections were filled with “the most envious malignity, the most base, vulgar, sordid, fish-woman scurrility, and the most palpable lies that had ever been leveled against any public official.” The media by which these falsehoods circulate may have changed considerably, but the fact that politicians and their surrogates seek to defame their opponents should come as a surprise to no one.
Finally, blaming Facebook commits a classic liberal fallacy by looking for explanations in external, structural elements and neglecting the simplest, most logical cause: the human factor. If Trump supporters get their news from a narrow range of alt right Web sites espousing crackpot conspiracy theories, rather than the “trusted” legacy news media approved by coastal elites, this is a deliberate choice reflecting their longstanding alienation from what they view as a hopelessly compromised “establishment.” If they live in an “echo chamber” composed of strident propaganda, rather than reading and accepting The New York Times’ version of events, they do so because they want to.
Does anyone think really that if Facebook slipped a few more pieces of highbrow analysis from The Atlantic into their News Feeds, alongside all the links from Breitbart and Info Wars, this would somehow magically bring enlightenment? Far more likely, the user would glance at the headline, immediately identify the source, and dismiss the content as unreliable due to perceived bias. Again, this kind of ideological sorting is an active process of filtering and self-curation by individuals, not a mechanical system in which unwitting dupes are fooled by a faulty algorithm.
By the same token, pinning the blame on Facebook seeks to excuse individuals from their basic responsibility to at least try to distinguish between truth and lies. In short, if someone believes something that is so transparently false – say, that Hillary Clinton has had over 100 people murdered and yet somehow managed to evade justice all these years, or that Barack Obama founded ISIS, or that both of them are literally demons – it’s safe to say the fault lies at least as much with the person who believes the lie as the person who tells it.It may not be politically convenient or palatable to say so, but at the end of the day, in a democracy, the responsibility for election results will always lie exclusively with one group and one group only – the people.