First Click: Where's the Facebook fact checker America so desperately needs?

October 19th, 2016


I have a Facebook friend, let’s call him Mike, who’s a rabid supporter of Donald Trump and God, in that order. You probably have someone similar in your own timeline expressing an equally dogged allegiance to Hillary Clinton. Last night Mike expressed concern at seeing Clinton “so far ahead” in the polls espoused by the mainstream media. The system had to be rigged since everyone that Mike talks to is voting for Trump. So he decided to conduct his own impromptu Facebook poll. The rules were simple: drop the candidate’s name — Trump, Clinton, Johnson, or Stein — into the comments and he’d tally up the final score.

Here’s the result I woke up to:

trump facebook poll

I was shocked, and not just because I think Trump is a dangerous demagogue. I was shocked to see a unanimous response (29 out of 29 comments by the time it was done) when the national polling average is 46 percent Clinton to 40 percent Trump. I’d feel the same if every response would have been "Clinton." How can we, the people of this imperfect union, be an informed electorate if we only surround ourselves with like-minded people who gleefully pat each other on the back with unchallenged groupthink? We're dividing ourselves into red feeds vs. blue feeds — and that's a problem now that so many people use Facebook as their primary news source.

In May, Frank Bruni lamented the rise of the anti-social network in a New York Times article titled "How Facebook warps our worlds." Here’s an excerpt:

"Unseen puppet masters on Mark Zuckerberg’s payroll aren’t to blame. We’re the real culprits. When it comes to elevating one perspective above all others and herding people into culturally and ideologically inflexible tribes, nothing that Facebook does to us comes close to what we do to ourselves."

"We construct precisely contoured echo chambers of affirmation that turn conviction into zeal, passion into fury, disagreements with the other side into the demonization of it."

In other words, who cares about Facebook’s biased trending feed module when we’ve already broken off into cliques far more disparaging and mean than the girls of North Shore high school? Cliques perpetuated by Facebook's algorithms that provide a steady stream of news to match their interests. Mike’s entire timeline illustrates this tribal behavior perfectly with nary a single voice of dissent on hundreds of political posts espousing the same ideology. And I’ve seen similar one-sided timelines from my Clinton friends. Yet even though I disagree with Mike’s politics, I can’t stop myself from visiting his page.

I started hiding Mike’s posts a few months ago as a signal to Facebook to stop including them in my feed. After two hides they vanished from my timeline. I still peek occasionally to see how he’ll defend statements or actions I consider indefensible. I click the links and watch the videos he swears will set the crooked straight. What I find, however, rarely checks out with the facts, yet his comments are flooded with cheers of unconditional support. Unfortunately, Facebook views my curiosity as a reason to open up my timeline to political posts and links from even more of my Trump-leaning childhood friends. So I hide them as part of a cycle I seem doomed to repeat until well after November 8th.

You might argue that I’m no better than Mike by filtering the stories I don’t like from sites I don’t agree with. The big difference, though, is that the only news I consume on Facebook is related to the babies, pets, and baby pets of my friends and family. If you want to discuss politics then you’ll have to buy me a drink first so we can talk face to face.

See, Facebook doesn’t care about the veracity of the political news being shared just so long as people spend lots of time viewing ads while sharing it. That’s fine for cat videos, gadgets, and recipes, but surely political news requires a different set of personalization algorithms. Baseless conspiracy theories and outright lies should be downranked just as quickly as the clickbait articles Facebook demoted in August. If Google News can introduce a nonpartisan fact-checking feature then surely Facebook could do the same. It would go a long way in helping Mike and I, and the nation, to become friends again.

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