Friends of mine are ditching Facebook and other social media. The election of Donald Trump dispirited them, shocked them, filled them with a mix of outrage, regret, and fear — emotions that spilled onto everyone’s feed in the form of personal rants or links to paid pundit rants; of charts and maps, statistics and vote counts; rumors and half-truths, and a giant pile of lies.
In other words, the aftermath of the election has been little different from the 18 months of the election season itself. In the final months, fake news outpaced news from reliable sources in online interaction by large margins, and the word spread that one fake news writer feels complicit in getting Donald Trump elected. All eyes have turned to Facebook as one among many culprits (Glenn Greenwald trigger warning) that Democrats and other media watchers that bear responsibility for making a President Trump more than just a joke on The Simpsons. At first, Mark Zuckerberg dismissed as “crazy” the idea that Facebook would have any effect on the election (but was happy not long ago to take credit for the Arab Spring); a few days later, after voices within the company expressed serious concerns, Zuckerberg announced a plan to regulate the spread of misinformationon Facebook.
I have no idea if those measures will be effective — I doubt that they even matter. The problems we face on Facebook are the same problems we face in any other information environment, whether on social media or with traditional media: a serious lack of critical thinking by readers; and political coverage that focuses on the superficial, the dramatic, with little real attention to policy issues. It wasn’t Facebook or Twitter that ignored global warming during the three presidential debates.
Washington reporters are currently bemoaning the lack of access to the president elect for the White House press corps, which is a serious issue in terms of accountability (and fits in with Trump’s hostility toward freedom of the press); but it should be noted that the competition for access and the chumminess of the press corps with the presidency has served to disinform the public far too often in the past. We need a much more adversarial press corps. We need serious investigative journalism.
The incoming administration has shown that it thrives on spreading disinformation (many fake news stories were spread by Trump campaign operatives and spokespeople), and will openly reward those reporters who tow the line and banish, if not seek to punish those who ask hard questions. This kind of behavior has precedent in our politics; but there is nothing normal about what is to come (a take we are hearing a lot lately on many fronts.)
So our duty will be to demand as citizens a free press, but we need a strong press, one that will do its job of fighting for the truth when the white nationalists start implementing their abhorrent policies.