It is perhaps rather apt that the first series of the American version of The Apprentice – starring one Donald J Trump – first aired just a month before the launch of another staple of the modern media age, Facebook, in January 2004. Now, 12 years on, the reality TV star is heading for the White House, his extraordinary support having been mobilised in part by Facebook’s ability to bring together, and embolden, like-minded communities.
For Mr Trump, just as for other 21st century political populists, the rise of social media has been vital, enabling traditional news outlets not only to be bypassed but frequently portrayed as untrustworthy. In response to every media critique, the President-elect needed only to take to Twitter to get in his slam-dunk rebuttal. No matter that his responses were limited to 140 characters: Mr Trump has never offered much detail in any event, so Twitter is perhaps his ideal medium.
The role of Facebook is under particular scrutiny following suggestions it played a key role in the outcome of the election by enabling the wide circulation of fake news items. Some of those hoaxes presented Mr Trump in a positive light – one “news” piece suggested his candidacy had been endorsed by the Pope. Other stories cast his Democratic rival in the role of villain, with one false item claiming an FBI agent investigating Ms Clinton had been found dead. Bizarrely, the small town of Veles in Macedonia became a hub for fake stories, with residents there setting up around 140 websites focussing on US politics. The more unlikely the story, the more it seemed to gain traction among Trump supporters, being widely shared on Facebook. The result was advertising revenue for the entrepreneurs of Veles and the spread of disinformation among Americans.
Facebook’s founder and chief executive, Mark Zuckerberg, has rejected the idea that the network swayed the election. And indeed, it is certainly quite true that the vast majority of information circulating on Facebook is, as he puts it, “authentic” and originates from reliable sources. In any criticism of Mr Zuckerberg’s creation, it cannot be ignored that Facebook has done a great deal of good and has allowed countless powerful, important and true stories to be shared in a way that would otherwise have been impossible.
Still, the debate over the American election goes to the heart of a broader conundrum: are digital giants such as Facebook and Google publishers or simply delivery platforms? For what is disparagingly called the mainstream media, this question has taken on particular significance as advertising revenue migrates steadily away from traditional outlets – notably printed newspapers – to the internet’s biggest beasts, which rely on, but take little responsibility for, the content created and posted by traditional publishers.
And yet it would surely be wrong to conclude that heavier regulation is the answer in all this. It would pose any number of practical problems if, for instance, Facebook had to confirm the veracity of any news story on its network before it could be shared. Any attempt to narrow the parameters of what is and is not permissible on the site would be beset by legal challenges and ultimately add further fuel to the conspiracy theorists who see establishment stitch-ups at every turn. Further, it is unthinkable that news publishers would be happy for Facebook to have the power to sit in judgement on whether a particular article or publisher should be excluded from the world’s biggest platform for news.
So, yes, Silicon Valley’s finest should consider what measures they can reasonably take to enable users to raise concerns about fake stories. But there is also a clear need to improve levels of media literacy among many internet users, who frequently appear unable to distinguish between facts and fiction online.
Most of all though, it is vital that debates about online news, the role of social media and the influence of exciting lies over boring truths don’t prevent us from examining the underlying concerns of those who are happy to believe fake stories, who do not trust mainstream media or politicians and who, in the US last week, voted for a man who by any normal measure would seem ill-equipped for high office. Their concerns have been ignored or misunderstood for too long. Now is not the time to repeat the mistake.
Join our new commenting forum
Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies