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Does Facebook Have Too Much Influence on American Politics?

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By Casey C. Sullivan, Esq. on November 14, 2016 11:59 AM

The president-elect's social media platform of choice may be Twitter, but one of the biggest social media stories of this campaign has nothing to do with 140-character policy proposals or late-night tweet storms. It's about Facebook.

Facebook has quickly replaced traditional print journalism as one of the main sources of news for most Americans, with almost half of the country turning to Facebook for their news fix. But some of that news is not of the highest quality. Some of it is blatantly false. And that could have a significant impact on American society and politics.

Facebook's Growing Influence

Forty-four percent of all Americans get news on Facebook, according to the Pew Research Center. But only two out of 10 Americans still turn to newspapers to stay informed.

The rise in social media as a major news source coincides with an election that saw viral, hyper-partisan news playing an increased role. Sure, Facebook is host to shared stories by established media sources, like the Washington Post and the New York Times. But those voices are joined by, and some times overshadowed by, partisan media like Breitbart or Mother Jones and fly-by-night websites with little to no journalistic standards.

Some stories that gain traction on Facebook are designed simply to go viral, accuracy be damned. Some are outright false. Just last week, Buzzfeed reported that a group of teenagers in a small town in Macedonia had set up 140 websites targeted at Trump supporters, filled with false, sensationalized, or plagiarized news.

And it's not just people using Facebook as a platform, either. Facebook's trending news algorithm came under fire this election season for failing to distinguish real stories from false ones. (Facebook canned the human team that used to pick trending topics, after they were accused of suppressing conservative news.) Facebook has promoted fake stories about Siri magically coming out of iPhones, for example, and conspiracy theories that Presidents Bush and Obama rigged the 2008 election.

Don't Overestimate Facebook, Zuckerberg Says

Those stories could change how people act, and vote. According to Pew, 20 percent of people have changed their view on a social or political issue due to something they've seen on social media.

Responding to criticism last week, however, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg largely dismissed those concerns.

"The idea that fake news on Facebook ... influenced the election in any way I think is a pretty crazy idea," he said while speaking at the Techonomy conference.

"I do think," he continued, "there is a certain profound lack of empathy in asserting that the only reason why someone could have voted the way they did is because they saw some fake news."

Even Facebook's so-called bubble effect, the idea that people surround themselves only with like-minded friends on the social network, is overblown, Zuckerberg said. Most Facebook users have friends who are their ideological opposites, whether they know it or not, making the network "inherently more diverse" than most media outlets.

The problem, though, is that even with diverse viewpoints, people tend to interact only with the stories that reaffirm their current views, Zuck said. "I don't know what to do about that," he admitted.

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