At a Bay Area Ritz-Carlton on Thursday night, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg took time to eschew any responsibility the role his website, the third-most visited in the world, had in disseminating fake and misleading news that shaped the presidential election.
“I do think there is a certain profound lack of empathy in asserting that the only reason someone could have voted the way they did is they saw some fake news,” he said.
Mark Zuckerberg, meet 64-year-old Pennsylvania resident and swing voter Yvonne Cipperly.
“I’ve been keeping up with the fact-checking lately and she can’t tell the truth. Why did she have a teleprompter during the debate? She gave herself away, always looking down,” she told The Guardian last week.
Absolutely none of what Ms. Cipper said is true.
She then told The Guardian that she gets all her news from Facebook.
“If she gets in and isn’t prosecuted, I can almost guarantee she will be assassinated,” she said.
Back to the Ritz-Carlton.
“Why would you think there would be fake news on one side and not the other?” Zuckerberg continued, ignoring a Buzzfeed News story showing that, statistically, fake right-wing news pervaded the site by a considerable amount more than fake left-wing news.
“I think we would be surprised by how many things that don’t conform to our worldview, we just tune out. I don’t know what to do about that,” he said.
It’s not about information that doesn’t “conform to our world view.” It’s about the business model of the sixth-most valuable company in the world and the largest publicly available people database in human history refusing to stamp out information that conforms to exactly how people want to feel about a topic, even if it’s completely—and often intentionally—made up.
In other words, Facebook is letting fake news infest its website because it allows the company to make more money. That’s all it is.
I covered fake news for the past year for The Daily Beast, and I can say this unequivocally: Mark Zuckerberg and Facebook are not trying hard enough to stop the spread of lies and deliberate misinformation that has taken over its website. And they have no incentive to try harder, because they value their company’s growth over the best interests of their users.
It all comes back to this stat: Daily active users.
As The Ringer’s Victor Luckerson wrote on Wednesday, “If you tune in to quarterly earnings reports or listen to tech executives gloat about their companies’ growth, you’re increasingly likely to hear talk of daily active users (DAUs) rather than monthly active users.” In other words, Facebook is in dire need of getting people to come back every day.
And what’s the best way to do that? Present easily absorbable content that hits our pleasure centers directly.
That includes, for example, stories like “Hillary Clinton Calls Bernie Fans and Millennials ‘Bucket of Losers,’” which was a story intentionally made up by a 47-year-old bank executive in Florida to dupe gullible Facebook users.
Well, guess what? It worked. The story trended on Facebook and, in turn, wound up on Fox News. And that was a man with no incentive to turn a profit on the emotions of Americans who don’t have the internet literacy or desire to fact-check.
Those organizations exist, too. According to a Buzzfeed News investigation last week, there are more than 100 pro-Trump “news” websites with names like “USADailyPolitics.com,” which is run by teens in the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia.
When they hit the Facebook jackpot, those websites can make “up to $3,000 in a day” with stories that are completely untrue, but serve as fantastical political wish fulfillment for those too tired or ecstatic to check each story’s veracity.
Headlines like “BREAKING: PROOF SURFACES THAT OBAMA WAS BORN IN KENYA” help these sites take in about 1 million page views a month.
“I started the site for a easy way to make money,” said a 17-year-old. “In Macedonia the economy is very weak and teenagers are not allowed to work, so we need to find creative ways to make some money.”
Enter Facebook’s news algorithm, which grants them free cash if they can correctly target America’s ethos.
“People in America prefer to read news about Trump,” said a 16-year-old.
“Voters make decisions based on their lived experience,” said Zuckerberg.
Part of voters’ lived experiences is now getting their news from a 16-year-old in Macedonia who is making thousands of dollars by manipulating Americans on Facebook.
After all, as Trump said just last month: “Forget the press. Read the internet.”
“It’s not that the diverse information isn’t there,” Zuckerberg told the crowd at the Half Moon Bay Ritz-Carlton, where the cheapest room tonight is $754. “But we haven’t got people to engage with it in higher proportions.”
Of course, Zuckerberg had a team in place to do just that. Facebook had an editorial staff for its Trending team of between 15 to 18 people, but fired all of them overnight after an ex-employee alleged to Gizmodo that “it was like [other editors] had a bias against Ted Cruz.”
Instead of creating a process to fix their problem, Facebook eliminated any fact-checking whatsoever and created an algorithm that boosted intentionally wrong information for profit.
Just days later, Facebook’s Trending box, now lightly curated by developers and not journalists, featured a story about how 9/11 was an inside job.
So it’s worth asking: Does Facebook really want to fix it?
In 2014, the company purchased the virtual reality gaming company Oculus for $2 billion. In September, Daily Beast reporter Gideon Resnick and I discovered the Oculus founder Palmer Luckey had donated $10,000 to Nimble America, a pro-Trump political organization dedicated to proving “shitposting is powerful and meme magic is real.”
Shitposting, according to The Daily Dot, is “a deliberate provocation designed for maximum impact with minimum effort.”
Luckey confirmed to us directly and repeatedly via email that he controlled an account on a Reddit forum called “NimbleRichMan” that posted about his donations to the group.
When we emailed Facebook, where Luckey still works for comment on the story, the company never responded.
The day after the story, fallout was swift. Virtual reality developers began pulling support for the Oculus platform, and others condemned his work with the group. About 24 hours after the story was published, Luckey responded, and in his response did not tell the truth.
“I did not write the ‘NimbleRichMan’ posts,” he said in his statement.
In an email three days before, Resnick asked Luckey if he “made this post asking for contributions?”
“Yes, with guidance from the Nimble America guys,” he wrote.
Resnick asked him again to clarify. “So you sent the body of that post to someone else to post on your behalf?” he asked.
“I posted the body myself,” he responded.
When The Daily Beast repeatedly asked Facebook and Luckey to comment on why an employee was repeatedly not telling the truth in a press release, neither responded.
So is disseminating the truth a priority at Facebook? By any metric, it does not appear so.
Does that matter to Zuckerberg? Perhaps. He says he and his wife have “pledged to give 99 percent of their Facebook shares to charitable causes” and would “invest at least $3 billion over the next decade toward preventing, curing or managing all diseases by the end of the century.”
In the meantime, however, he’s created a scourge: Millions of people addicted to a website that’s broken by design.