Mark Zuckerberg is apparently not familiar with the concept of trolls, the online cretins who revel in spreading misinformation and making other people's lives miserable.
So he may be in for a surprise if he thinks his latest initiative will have any real effect on curbing "fake news."
For those who may not have been following, Zuckerberg has said Facebook will de-emphasize news in its News Feeds. Beyond the absurdity of that statement, this initiative will have little effect on the real practitioners of faking the news but a potentially big impact on the media that are actually trying to get it right.
Zuckerberg, who recently admitted he was too quick to reject the idea that fake online news had affected the 2016 presidential election, says he wants his daughters to look back years from now and see that he built something that was "good for the world."
What's good for the world, he announced in a followup to his initiative, apparently will be decided by Facebook users, who will be surveyed about whether they're familiar with a news source and, if so, whether they trust that source. Zuckerberg said in a recent post — on Facebook, of course — "The idea is that some news organizations are only trusted by their readers or watchers, and others are broadly trusted across society even by those who don't follow them directly."
This all raises some interesting issues. Those of us, ahem, fortunate enough to deal with online commenters, know that the first and most vigorous comments on almost any topic usually come from the troll tribe. Ask a larger group what they think of anything and, nine times out of 10, the trolls will quickly raise their digital hands. Does the survey take into account that those most likely to respond are those most likely to be highly partisan themselves?
And then there's the statement "... broadly trusted across society even by those who don't follow them directly." Not to be too self-centered, but what does that mean for an organization like the Mail Tribune or the Ashland Daily Tidings? Being "broadly trusted across society" suggests a reach far exceeding the bounds of the Rogue Valley or the vicinity of Ashland.
And, of course, there may be just a teensy issue with the idea of asking the general public to rate the news media. Of course, you, our loyal readers, are far wiser than those in the general public, but should the value of a news outlet be determined by people who get their news in the five minutes allotted between ABBA songs on the radio every hour? Or even better, the regular viewers of cable TV "news" shows?
Getting back to the trolls and Zuckerberg's hope to build something good, does he really think that, by making it more difficult to find news stories, he will dissuade the creators of Russian troll bots from pushing their garbage? The Russia-based Internet Research Agency may fade into the background, but how long will it take for Jane Smith (aka Olga Mikhailov) or Bill Jones (aka Dmitri Vasiliev) to weigh in with their own "facts"?
Considering that Facebook has a market value somewhere north of $520 billion, perhaps the social media giant could, instead of limiting news access, hire more people to stand guard and people to create programs to stand guard against fake news appearing on its site.
Improving a News Feed by limiting real news? I don't think that Zuckerberg's daughters will one day think that was "good for the world."
— Bob Hunter is associate editor of the Mail Tribune. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.