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'Fake News' Isn't Just Facebook's Problem

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Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg speaks on stage on April 12, 2016. (Photo: REUTERS/Stephen Lam)

A version of this blog originally appeared on White Cover Magazine.

Blame Facebook if you want, if you're afraid to take responsibility.

Blame the Internet if you want, because it's easy. Because nobody likes to admit that the cracks of journalism aren't just as natural in that industry as they are in any others, that they're part of what makes journalism human, that they've also been around for as long as the press has been printed. Watched. Listened to. Copied and pasted.

The Internet has been terrific for journalism. It's been terrific for all of us -- readers and observers and commentators -- whether we're professional or practicing or obsessed or just interested. Access to free and open information is the rebar that keeps Western democracy from sliding off the edge and into the water.

It's a slippery and risky tool, of course, this powerful network that gives us the ability for obscene good -- but also opportunistic tragedy and evil. We have never been more informed and, in some ways, less educated. That's what a pessimist would say.

facebook news feed
(Photo: REUTERS/Dado Ruvic)

For every enlightening voice that the Internet has given a mic to, the pessimist will say there's been another, harmful, misleading and destructive mole that's popped up to be whacked. But that's baby and bathwater. Flush one, you lose the other. And to do that, to condemn the medium and ignore those who are exploiting it, is only to aid the fools and the hateful and the scared and regressive.

To pick apart or slander the entire news business just to hopefully catch a few spammers in the cross-hairs, which is at least what's being proposed by some Internet pundits in the wake of Donald Trump's election -- and let's call fake news what it is really is, it's spam -- is as logical and progressive as incinerating all of Vietnam to catch a few communists, or carpet-bombing the home of every and any Iraqi in your way to catch Saddam.

We don't need reaction. We need surgery and precision.

Facebook and Twitter don't spread fake news... people do.

We need the courage and patience to eat around the brown spot on the banana. We need to stand up to bullshit without stomping on the garden. When you blame Facebook and social media and the Internet and democracy for the faults of humans beings who are actively and intentionally sharing, endorsing and installing nonsense, you're letting real and actual, shitty people off the hook.

There's no artificial intelligence here.

Facebook and Twitter don't spread fake news... people do. People write it. People believe it. People who pour water on weeds are liable. And, frankly, if you believe any of the most popular, made-up headlines from this past election, there's little chance you're intelligent enough to have cast a responsible vote anyway.

Sarah Palin Bans Muslims From Entering Bristol Palin ... RUPAUL CLAIMS TRUMP TOUCHED HIM INAPPROPRIATELY IN THE 1990s ... Pence: "Michelle Obama Is The Most Vulgar First Lady We've Ever Had" ... Obama Signs Executive Order Banning The Pledge Of Allegiance In Schools Nationwide ...

And, of course:

fake news on google
A screencap of Google News on election night, with the top link going to a fake news site.

If you believe any of these, it's hard to imagine you're going to make use of proper reporting, as a voter or as an individual.

And if you believe made-up, grammatically insane atrocities like the "articles" above are any equivalent to the honest oversights or mistakes that hard-working journalists are susceptible to, then I guess this column I'm writing isn't for you.

(Remember -- for every time the "mainstream media" has pissed you off or failed you, from the Times' WMD catastrophe to CNN's 24-hour circle-jerk coverage of this election, there's been Watergate or Spotlight or the countless other unshared, thankless and still-important stories that deserve to be cherished and defended.)

We've always been tricked and pulled and tweezed like this.

Sure, many of the fakest and most socially shared articles from this past election cycle weren't as obvious or as extra-terrestrial as the ones I've linked to. A few of them were most definitely believable or at least conceivable -- that made-up meme of Donald Trump slamming Republican voters as stupid and brainwashed in the 90s, for example.

And yes, social media and the web have allowed us to too-conveniently block any news or facts we disagree with, while also flooding us with enough of the opposite. If you want to hate something, you'll find someone who agrees with you... and if you want to love something, you'll also find someone who agrees with you, no matter the accuracy, context or error. And yes, all this serves to confuse us and divide us -- and somehow, ironically, make us feel more confident in our wrong convictions all the same.


But here's the thing... we've always had this ability. We've always been tricked and pulled and tweezed like this.

When you subscribe to a newspaper, you choose which one you want delivered to your door -- or your inbox. When you turn on your TV, you choose which channel you'll watch. You choose whether you'll read or watch the news at all. Reporters and editors choose which stories to cover and which ones to ignore, which ones to give prime real estate to and which ones to bury.

We've always been able to blind ourselves from the inconvenient truths and realities of the world around us. We've always been able to barricade ourselves in our homes or within our religion or our communities, treating our suspicions and fears as legitimate threats or eventualities.

Opinion is not the same as bias, and bias is not the same as bullshit.

There have always been blind spots. Honest-in-their-efforts TV reporters and newsrooms have never been able to ensure the right messages are being delivered to the people most in need of hearing them. And because reporters and editors and writers are people, too, they're prey to the same faults and fuck-ups.

But I'll take this world we have today over the way it was. Without question. Because even when it feels like two steps forward and one step back, you're still ahead of where you started.

Because while this choice and access has given us choice and access to the worst, it's also given us choice and access to the best. To the brightest. To those who deserve to be heard or read or watched, who perhaps wouldn't be without the web -- who otherwise may have been stunted and stuck in a newsroom's bureaucracy or company's branches and neutered for the most productive parts of their career. I'll take the gluttonous digestion of content and the humour and the light that social media allows, and I'll take and keep the newspapers and traditional media, as well.

Opinion is not the same as bias, and bias is not the same as bullshit.

"Fake news" is a problem, but it's not Facebook's problem -- it's your problem. Our problem.

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