For over a decade now, the institution of professional journalism has been pitted in a grossly mismatched competition with social media to provide public information. Clickbait and algorithms prioritizing extreme views routinely outperform extensively researched, fact checked, and unbiased news pieces; and we are seeing the long-term effects in the increasing polarity of our culture.
“The result has been more division, more harm, more lies, more threats, and more combat. In some cases, this dangerous online talk has led to actual violence that harms and even kills people,” former Facebook data scientist and whistleblower Frances Haugen testified to a U.S. Senate subcommittee in early October.
Haugen’s testimony described a culture of prioritizing engagement at all costs within Facebook pushing algorithms that bump sensational, hateful, and oftentimes misinformative content farther up the news feed. (The company is now called Meta.) The rampant spread of social media misinformation has been linked to ethnic violence both in the U.S. and abroad, as well as mental health issues at all ages, climate change denial, and more. She also released thousands of pages of internal Facebook documents, dubbed “The Facebook Files,” to back up her claims.
Fibs sell. A New York University study recently found that articles posted on Facebook by news sources listed by NewsGuard and Media Bias/Fact Check as known for spreading misinformation were six times more likely to be engaged with than more trustworthy news sites.
On the other hand, many established newsrooms have been policing themselves for years to ensure quality journalism. Codes of ethics are strictly practiced and enforced, multiple rounds of editing and fact checking accompany every story, and if errors are made, corrections are quickly run. Some of the more impactful articles I’ve written for Moonshine Ink have gone through more than 20 to 30 rounds of edits and fact checking — an exhausting, yet necessary component of news writing. Did these edits make my articles trendier? I’d like to think so, but probably not. They did, however, make them more unbiased, more factual, and fair to all those involved.
Efforts to bring a similar level of accountability to Facebook/Meta and other Silicon Valley tech giants are being made, both internally and at a government level, but their effectiveness remains to be seen. The election unrest last January and Haugen’s report both catalyzed lawmakers into an impassioned conversation about reigning in the tech giants; yet little has been done to date to regulate them. The most likely action comes from federal legislation introduced last year to change a law called Section 203, which protects social media companies from liability for content created by their users.
The alternative to government action being discussed is the viability of these companies policing themselves. In an August report Meta shared statistics of its own policing, stating that since the start of the pandemic almost two years ago it had removed over 20 million posts and 3,000 users for spreading vaccine misinformation, as well as 31.5 million pieces of hate speech content, and more. This seems like a windfall until you consider that 4 billion videos are viewed on Facebook each day. These numbers were also released two months before Haugen stepped forward to say that the company was not doing nearly enough.
In a parliamentary hearing in the UK following her U.S. debut, Haugen made a comment disturbingly appropriate for small communities such as Tahoe/Truckee if reputable news sources continue to give way to the unreliable news wave of social media.
“I am deeply concerned that [Meta] have made a product that can lead people away from their real communities and isolate them in these rabbit holes and these filter bubbles,” Haugen said. “What you find is that when people are sent targeted misinformation to a community, it can make it hard to reintegrate into wider society because now you don’t have shared facts.”
And this is why you’re reading Moonshine. It’s because you care about this community and enjoy discussing ideas with your neighbors that bring us all forward together. Because you appreciate the difference between news and opinion — this article is the latter — and want them both to be rooted strongly in fact. Because maybe you’re sick of the clickbait and want something real. In their most basic forms, both social media giants like Meta and quality news sources like Moonshine are products, and every day with your readership you make an investment in one or the other.
~ Sage Sauerbrey is a former editor of Moonshine Ink turned tiny house builder. After writing countless articles about the housing crisis, he decided it was high time to go build some achievable housing.