Dear San Francisco tech workers,
Hello there, friends. Joe Fitz here, your loudmouthed, not-humble-enough dead tree columnist. I know we haven’t always gotten along. I’ve decried your role in gentrification, I’ve decried your industry’s role in local politics. But today I come to you hat in hand … I’ve got a favor to ask:
Help stem the tide of fake news.
It’s hurting our democracy — and may have helped elect Donald Trump as president (as many, from The New York Times to comedian and newsman John Oliver, have pointed out).
The pope endorses Trump. Hillary worships Satan. Black-on-white gun violence is at an all-time high. Two white men “doused with gasoline, set on FIRE by blacks.”
All are among the ridiculous (and false) headlines from fake websites that real human beings actually believe, propagated across Facebook with the sound of a million share button clicks. And Facebook isn’t alone.
The top website listed in a Google search for election results, as of this writing, wasn’t from the Washington Post or The Times, but a blog post written by a completely random crank claiming Trump won the popular vote. (He didn’t. False, false, false).
I’m not going to retread the excellently argued gravity of the fake news epidemic, covered so well by Oliver and others. But I will say this: San Franciscans can and should drive this change.
Some tech workers have taken baby steps toward this. Buzzfeed News reported an anonymous group of “renegade” employees said they are pushing their boss, founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg, to recognize that fake news “ran wild on our platform during the entire campaign season.”
The best positioned people to lobby Facebook and Google’s masters are those who work under them. Those workers, much decried, who fly off to the Valley in those gleaming tech shuttles.
Firstly, the masters of Facebook in particular need to recognize there is a problem. Stat.
Zuckerberg, who lives on the edge of Dolores Park, mind you, posted an extensive note about the election on his Facebook page absolving his company of wrongdoing.
Zuck claimed “more than 99% of what people see [on Facebook] is authentic. Only a very small amount is fake news and hoaxes.”
He minimized Facebook’s role in the election, and added, “News and media are not the primary things people do on Facebook, so I find it odd when people insist we call ourselves a news or media company in order to acknowledge its importance.”
You’ve got to be kidding me.
Contrary to Zuck’s claim, most studies show the majority of Americans get their news through Facebook. As newspapers’ dominance fades, and social media dictates what we see, we need new gatekeepers. I’m sorry, tech, but you’re it.
Importantly, that new “gatekeeping” of facts need not come in the form of censorship. Silicon Valley could “innovate” ways of verifying news sources that allow users to self-filter not just for opinion, as they do now — but for research, accuracy or some other yardstick.
No one has all the solutions yet, but tech workers need to be driving the conversation now. You’ve only got four years until the next fake-newspocalypse. Make them count.
On Guard prints the news and raises hell each week. Email Fitz at firstname.lastname@example.org, and follow him on Twitter and Instagram @FitztheReporter.