It is unclear just how much the outcome of this presidential election was impacted by the fake news controversy surrounding Facebook and Twitter. What is clear, however, is that social media companies will be held far more accountable for the content running through their platforms than ever before, and in 2017 they will have to find the sweet spot between free speech and censorship.
Earlier this year, Facebook's Trending News team, responsible for curating the social media network's "Trending News" list, was fired after it became clear that they had progressive biases. So they handed the job over to engineers managing an algorithm. Unfortunately, that didn't work either since their algorithm isn't sophisticated enough to distinguish fake news from real news. Facebook initially took the stance of being a neutral party to news flowing through their platform, but in the wake of all the recent criticism, Facebook has admitted that its stance on resisting any "standards" of news on its platform was wrong.
Zuckerberg outlined a few steps that the company is taking to remedy the situation which includes stronger detection, easier reporting, 3rd party verification, warnings/disclaimers, quality scores, etc. Others have proposed solutions such as cutting off revenue streams to fake news sites from AdSense and content recommendation engines, or gamifying fake news detection. Regardless of how the fake news problem is addressed, we are clearly entering into a new era where large consumer internet platforms will be held far more accountable for the integrity of their content. The very nature of what is news, and what is a news organization, has come into question.
In the olden days, all news was disseminated through traditional publications such as newspapers and magazines. You judged the quality of content by the reputation of the publisher and perhaps by the author of a particular piece. Today, editorial-based organizations have an online presence, but there is little distinguishing NYTimes.com or WSJ.com from a Medium or WordPress blog. So who is to say what is news and what isn't?
Many talk about "free speech" in the context of online networks, but that isn't the issue here. You can pretty much post whatever you want online and you won't be jailed for expressing your religious beliefs or political views. But contrary to what many believe, the 'freedom of speech' amendment doesn't give you express right to say anything you want, anywhere you want (like yelling fire in a movie theater). The first amendment simply makes it unconstitutional for the government to suppress free speech, and in fact courts allow for all sorts of regulation when it comes to free speech, typically when it involves criminal activity, defamation, some other party getting hurt, and things of that nature. Sure, some fake news is harmless, but some fake news is most certainly hurting or defaming other parties and has real consequences for society as a whole.
Putting discussions about the first amendment aside, the reality is that Facebook is not just a technology platform, it is a media company. Today they are publishing endless articles and videos from a variety of different news organizations, and as such they should be held accountable for fake news. And it's not just Facebook. Google, Twitter and any other large technology companies that have the scale to influence elections must also recognize the societal responsibility that comes with it.
I keep coming back to what Obama said about why you can't run the U.S. government like a startup. He explains that democracy, by definition, is messy, and that what works for CEOs building apps doesn't necessarily work for our political process that balances the interests of many. It's an interesting reminder for tech companies disrupting old industries. Things that are non-issues early on could become massive considerations at a later date.
There is probably no silver bullet for solving the fake news problem. However, as information and content flood our lives from all angles, the companies that do the best job of filtering out the noise and providing the most integrity will be rewarded.