Sometime in 2016, it now seems agreed, Facebook broke traditional politics. The social media goliath is the world’s primary vector of fake news, hate speech and climate denial.
Now, in a US speaking tour, Mark Zuckerberg is making it clear that the platform is refusing to do anything about this. It’s obviously a huge issue in the US, where the twists and turns of Trumpian melodrama are shaped by fake news. But it’s also reflected in Australia’s own post-truth politics.
The world where politics was shaped by the open contention between truth and falsehood (as Milton declared some 400 years ago) seems gone. In its place, we have a world where the big tech platforms drown us in information, where objective truth is displaced from the centre of political debate by likes, shares and thumbs-up emojis.
Late last month, Facebook’s vice president of global affairs and communications (and former UK Lib Dem Party leader) Nick Clegg announced that Facebook will not apply its usual “community standards” to politicians’ speech on the basis that anything a politician says is “newsworthy content that should, as a general rule, be seen and heard”. Clegg also confirmed that the company would continue to exempt political advertising from third-party fact-checking.
The Clegg speech fell neatly after a private meeting between Zuckerberg and Trump — and just before Trump launched a $10 million ad buy on Facebook with false attacks on the Democratic co-front-runner Joe Biden.
It also coincided with reports of Zuckerberg meeting with other US right-wing figures. A leaked transcript showed Zuckerberg attacking Elizabeth Warren’s plan to break up Facebook. He was quoted saying: “if someone’s going to try to threaten something that existential, you go to the mat and you fight”.
These events have come together all at once to mark a seismic moment in how we should understand social media.
It’s not just that Facebook (and the other social media platforms) provide an opportunity for spreading soiled or destructive information, or that social media is polluted with bots and trolls; rather, it’s that the ad tech and algorithms that drive the revenue for the business, reward this sort of information by design. And it seems that the tech companies are unwilling to sacrifice the money they make by changing them.
Because any existential threat to Facebook can only come from US regulators, most reporting and analysis on these events has focused on what it means in a solely American context. But, its impact is just as great in Australia.
Take the “death taxes” lie, which was so influential in the recent federal election. This could not have occurred without the distribution that social media provided — enabling the targeting of demographics least likely to doubt, and most likely to spread misinformation through shares.
Apparently there’s now little shame in falsehoods. There’s greater shame in losing than in lying.
The removal of restraints on politicians’ speech is being exploited by extreme right-wing politicians, such as Pauline Hanson and Malcolm Roberts, in what is now a vicious circle: elected politicians can spread talking points on Facebook without restraint — providing an almost irresistible weapon to get themselves re-elected.
Traditional media once played the critical role of holding politicians to account on a standard of honesty, and real-time fact-checking and truth-telling. Thanks to this scrutiny, as recently as 2014, Barry O’Farrell stepped down as NSW premier for a misstatement over a gift.
This kept a self-serving relativism out of day-to-day political debate. Zuckerberg, on the other hand, can now dismiss demands for action by Facebook with a shrug: “misinformation is a pretty broad category”, he said in a recent Georgetown speech. Sure, we know that. But journalism spent close to 200 years building ethical codes and professional practices to deal with that very conundrum.
Of course, the work of journalism was often clunky and ineffective — go back no further to the industry’s embarrassment over Iraq and WMDs. It was often profoundly imperfect. But the striving for truth that underpinned the best of the craft provided better guardrails for political debate than the post-truth (non-truth) world that social media seems intent on leading us towards.