Since the election, Facebook has faced growing pressure to police hoaxes and misleading content. And with good reason: around 44 percent of US adults get at least some of their news through Facebook, and fake news often spreads more quickly through social media than real news.
But civic-minded technologist Clay Johnson, author of The Information Diet, warns that putting Facebook and Google in charge of deciding what is and isn’t true isn’t a good way to stop the spread of misinformation. “The moment that Facebook tries to become the arbiter of truth is the moment that people will discredit its authority,” he tweeted this week.
So Johnson has proposed another idea: Facebook could use its enormous influence to shift the spotlight away from the spectacle of national news and onto local issues that people can see and connect with more directly.
“If you want to be free of fake news, you’ve got to focus on things that are observable,” Johnson said in a phone interview. “So there’s nothing that does that like going into your community.”
The problem with Facebook or Google trying to fight fake news is that as soon as they start judging what is and isn’t true, people with opposing views will turn on the companies themselves, just as they accuse newspapers and television networks of bias when they tell stories that don’t fit their worldview. People who disagree with the choices Facebook or Google make won’t see the companies as any less partisan than the news organizations with which they already see themselves at odds.
Promoting more local content, on the other hand, would not only give people a more direct way to participate in issues that affect them where they live, but a more immediate way to verify what’s actually going on. Instead of—or at least in addition to—your usual timeline filled with outrageous quotes from national politicians, you would see information that’s relevant to your community or neighborhood.
An explosion of publicly available datasets from government agencies and non-profits could fuel such a service. And of course Facebook and other social media services gather quite a bit of data themselves. Facebook could mine that data for insights into how you could best help your community. For example, Facebook could tell you that your zip code has the highest rate of child poverty in your state and then give you a list of relevant organizations with which you could volunteer, Johnson says.
Facebook could use its enormous influence to shift the spotlight away from the spectacle of national news and onto local issues.
Yes, building such a system could be a big undertaking for Facebook. But as Johnson points out, it would probably be a lot easier than hiring an army of fact-checkers to rid the social network of fake news. And Facebook could sell ads alongside all these bits of local information. A bigger problem for the social network would be whether local information would prove as compelling to users as emotionally charged national political news. But Johnson is confident that a focus on local issues would be good business for Facebook. “I think it would cause people to share more content that’s locally relevant, more interesting content,” Johnson says.
Such a scheme wouldn’t necessarily solve the problem of fake news, much less heal the deep rifts that the country. But maybe it could help pull individual communities together. Facebook’s reach is global. But it also knows where most of its users live, which gives it the power to make its focus local.