OK, that’s made up. Out of whole cloth. Not one single thing about it is true. Nothing, that is, except the “family values“ stuff -- which is why if this popped up on your Facebook newsfeed, and you were of a certain political persuasion and therefore savored a delicious hypocrisy gotcha, you might not notice that there is no such paper as the Washington Press-Tribune, much less bothering to Google “Terre Haute White Swallow” by way of due diligence.
No, more likely you might instead hit the share button so fast you forget to add the laughter emoji.
Welcome to the world of fake news. But more to the point, welcome to the world of 1.7 billion echo chambers.
Fake news has been all the (out)rage in the past few days, as it emerged that incendiary phony stories -- almost all of them benefitting Donald Trump -- actually outperformed major news outlets on Facebook over the last three months of the presidential campaign.
20 top-performing false election stories from hoax sites and hyperpartisan blogs generated 8,711,000 shares, reactions, and comments on Facebook, according to research done by Craig Silverman from BuzzFeed. Within the same time period, the 20 best-performing election stories from 19 major news Web sites generated a total of 7,367,000 shares, reactions, and comments on Facebook.
Unsurprisingly, Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg found himself besieged by demands to intervene with technology or human labor to keep fraudulent “news” out of the newsfeed. Imposing curation or editorial judgment, of course, is the last thing Zuckerberg wants to do, because that would force him to at least tacitly acknowledge that Facebook is a publisher.
Now, you may think, “Wait. It is the world's biggest distributer of content, against which it sells advertising… of course it's a publisher.” But Zuckerberg, for fear of losing the safe harbor afforded by the Digital Millennium Copyright Act, clings to the fiction that Facebook is merely an agnostic platform. It's a thin reed, and suppressing certain content would shear the reed in two.
Yet, after dismissing as “crazy” the notion that Facebook's permissiveness helped swing the election, Zuckerberg abruptly changed course on Sunday and promised he's on the case. We'll see. Don't run any victory laps just yet. Because, as Walt Kelly put it, “we have met the enemy and it is us.”
While the EdgeRank algorithm is certainly pernicious, it is not evil. Mark Zuckerberg doesn't want to elect presidents. He wants to keep people on Facebook as long as he can. As such, the algorithm feeds us content similar that that which we've previously clicked on, commented on, liked, smiley-faced and/or shared. If users weren't choosing fake news, they'd soon stop receiving fake news and sharing it with others and so on into election-skewing virality.
Luckily for Trump, those on the political right proved to be far more susceptible -- or at least far more eager customers -- than those on the left. But just for one moment try to put the election aside, because the implications are more horrifying than even our current political predicament.
In this space I've already detailed how social-media distribution is potentially -- I'd say probably -- ruinous for publishers of serious, rigorous news. This springs from the above-mentioned pernicious convergence of user-engagement algorithms and complacent human nature. But as I've also bleated about incessantly, our polarized politics have literally reduced the demand for seriousness and rigor. Facts, information, data, science, authority are not only devalued, but regarded with suspicion.
Here is my guarantee: if Facebook follows through on Zuckerberg’s promise, the new Republican House of Representatives will hold a hearing demanding to know why it hasn't also suppressed NPR, NBC News and The New York Times.
Take that one to the bank. Meantime, if you have any reserves of dread left, contemplate the idea that Trump presidency is commencing in a socially mediated world that values bombastic lies more than it values the great gray truth.