Fake news, Facebook, and Civil War-era U.S. Senators

Fake news, Facebook, and Civil War-era U.S. SenatorsYou probably heard about the frustration around the prevalence of fake news on Facebook. Some people even think the fake news problem is so bad that it might have swung the U.S. presidential election.

Let’s leave the immediate political implications aside. What I want to focus on is one part of this story: the role Facebook plays in educating the citizenry. 

For as long as we’ve had a country, we’ve had concern over how gullible or shallow voters are. It’s unavoidable, really. Some citizens are incredibly well-informed. Others aren’t. The spectrum is wide, to say the least.

Civil War-era U.S. Senators were worried about poorly informed constituents

My wife’s sister and her husband started a Christmas-time family book club last year. (We read Hand to Mouth: Living in Bootstrap America by Linda Tirado.) This year, we’re reading Profiles in Courage by John F. Kennedy. 

I’m ashamed I haven’t read Profiles in Courage before now. I’m half way through, and I love it. It’s fantastic. The profiles are short, but still long enough to paint a nice historical picture. It’s a great refresher on American history. 

One of the stories is about Senator Thomas Hart Benton from Missouri. According to Profiles in Courage, here’s a quote from the last report Senator Benton sent his constituents:

I sometimes had to act against the preconceived opinions and first impressions of my constituents; but always with full reliance upon their intelligence to understand me and their equity to do me justice — and I have never been disappointed.

The very first profile in the book is of John Quincy Adams. Here is what then-Senator Adams wrote about representing his constituents:

…highly as I reverenced the authority of my constituents, and bitter as would have been the cup of resistance to their declared will…I would have defended their interests against their inclinations, and incurred every possible addition to their resentment, to save them from the vassalage of their own delusions.

Look at the word choice here:

  • “Preconceived opinions”
  • “First impressions”
  • “Inclinations”
  • “Delusions”

Both Senators expressed harsh judgments of the aptitude of their constituents. Both were respectful of their constituents, respectful of the overwhelming responsibility they held. But they were also keenly aware that the general population is often under informed.

Their more nuanced and evolved judgment was necessary to productively steer federal policy. Frankly, that’s one of the reasons the founders designed the United States as a republic. The closer you get to pure democracy, the more you rely on the policy judgments of the population. And the reality is large swaths of the public are ignorant about policy.

Fake news makes the problem of “preconceived opinions” and “first impressions” even worse

Part of me would like to believe that fake news isn’t uniquely problematic. We’ve dealt with an under informed citizenry forever, as we see in Profiles in Courage. The problem, though, is that fake news, the kind we see on Facebook, makes information gaps even worse.

Not only are people not getting enough information to overcome their blind spots and biases. They’re actively consuming content that cements these blind spots and biases. Facebook’s algorithms feed that kind of content to people all day, every day. Because that kind of content earns the most engagement. And engagement brings advertising revenue.

I know this part of the criticism of the fake news problem isn’t new. But I think, when we look back historically, we can see that the fake news problem is uniquely bad. We had a hard enough time informing a population that only had access to a generally unbiased newspaper. Now we have a firehose of content. And the path of lease resistance through this onslaught of content is to filter for the stuff that is most pleasant, that reinforces the beliefs we find most convenient.

Senators Adams and Benton would have hated Facebook

Yes, Facebook has some incredible virtues. The company has done a lot of good for the world. But Facebook’s leadership faces an important, unavoidable question.

What role does Facebook want to play, in terms of promoting an informed citizenry? It has to make a choice. One option is to sit on the sideline. To promote a wild, wild West theater in which all comers are welcome. The market will decide which news sources live and which news sources die.

Another choice is to promote an informed, aware citizenry. To help all citizens, everyone on the planet, find the information that will facilitate productive dialogue. Along this path, Facebook would necessarily have to fight back against the news sources that traffic in deceit and manipulation. That’s a stickier business proposition, no doubt.

It’s pretty easy to imagine how Senators Adams and Benton would have voted. They were already pissed off about how quickly, and loudly, their constituents reached impulsive conclusions. How angry do you think they’d be if Facebook was fanning those flames? Seems pretty silly that, at a point in time when we have access to more information than the world has ever known, we struggle so badly to get good information in the hands of a lot of people.

One lesson is you can’t avoid deciding who you’re going to be

Fake news is one angle for understanding some real challenges Facebook faces as a business. It has to decide what it’s going to be. Who is it going to serve? How is it going to serve? What stands will it, or won’t it, take? 

Again, these questions are unavoidable. Facebook’s scale means that no matter what decision is made, the consequences will be visible and material. It’s part of the reason senior leaders get paid millions of dollars per year. Small errors in judgment can have enormous financial consequences.

The same lesson holds on a personal level, though. The only way to avoid making difficult decisions is to be invisible. Remember the quote about criticism I just wrote about?

To avoid criticism, say nothing, do nothing, be nothing.

Facebook doesn’t have that luxury. It’s so big, even when it does “nothing”, it’s going to catch flak. But you and me, as individuals…we can do nothing. Though what an incredibly boring existence that would be.

If you and I are going to be of consequence, we have to make difficult decisions. We have to choose the stands we’re going to take. We have to draw the line and decide what clients, what projects, what deliverables, what timelines are unacceptable.

Personally, I hope Facebook takes a stand. I hope they decide that they can put their thumb on the scales, and push back against news sources that are exploiting the information gaps that are inevitable in any population. It might not be the easiest path, business-wise, but I think it’s the right thing to do.

More importantly for you and me, we have to make the same kinds of calls as individuals. Are you saying nothing? Doing nothing? Being nothing? Or are you taking some heat because, in the infamous words of Mahatma Ghandi, you’re being the change that you wish to see in the world?

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *