In the aftermath of the U.S. Presidential election, Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg took the stage at Techonomy16 to address concerns that the company didn’t do enough to stop the proliferation of fake news on News Feed.
Zuckerberg insisted that more can always be done to improve the quality of the News Feed experience, but that Facebook could not have influenced the outcome of the election.
“Personally, I think the idea that fake news on Facebook, of which it’s a very small amount of the content, influenced the election in any way is a pretty crazy idea,” Zuckerberg said.
He continued by saying people are looking for a narrative to explain the election. However, he believes that a narrative that implicitly assumes Trump supporters are dumb enough to be manipulated by Facebook is insulting to those voters. In his view, It was just as likely for News Feed to highlight fake news about Clinton — but the media remains steadfast in ignoring that Trump supporters ultimately believed their candidate can bring them a better life.
“People are smart and they understand what’s important to them,” noted Zuckerberg.
Rather than placing blame on the accessibility of facts, he pointed to content engagement as the problem. Zuckerberg noted that Trump’s posts got more engagement than Clinton’s on Facebook.
Facebook research shows that nearly everyone on the platform is connected with at-least someone that has opposing ideological beliefs. The real question for Zuckerberg is how to influence the way people react when they see a post they disagree. The key is to stop them from brushing it under the rug.
To get there, Facebook is making efforts to involve humans more deeply in the creation of the ranking algorithms the company uses for content. News Feed now has a human quality panel that is used to hone in rankings. Humans are given stories and asked to rank them to get a better idea of what makes a particular story fulfilling for the user.
Zuckerberg had previously only addressed the election in a Facebook post featuring a photograph of his daughter Max. He noted at that time that, “We are all blessed to have the ability to make the world better, and we have the responsibility to do it,” but didn’t elaborate on what that meant specifically for him and his company.
Adam Mosseri, VP of Product Management for NewsFeed, echoed much of what Zuckerberg said earlier today in a statement to TechCrunch, though his brief comments were notably less skeptical of the importance of removing propaganda.
“We understand there’s so much more we need to do, and that is why it’s important that we keep improving our ability to detect misinformation,” Mosseri noted.
Despite all of the global concern about Trump’s win, Zuckerberg did take a moment to make it clear that he doesn’t believe any single person can fundamentally alter the arc of technological innovation.
The following transcription has been edited slightly for readability. It contains the largest chunk of Zuckerberg’s commentary about the role of News Feed in the election. If you want to see the entire talk, you can watch it in its entirety here.
So when it comes to News Feed ranking, I actually think we are very transparent. Every time we add a new signal or make a change we publish that, right? We explain why we are doing it and what signal we are adding and we bring people in to talk to them about it. You know that stuff is out there and we will continue to do that and that’s a big part of what we do and we take that seriously.
I’ve seen some of the stories you are talking about around this election and personally I think the idea that fake news on Facebook, of which it’s a very small amount of the content, influenced the election in any way is a pretty crazy idea.
You know voters make decisions based on their lived experience. We really believe in people. You don’t generally go wrong when you trust that people understand what they care about and what’s important to them and you build systems that reflect that.
Part of what I think is going on here is people are trying to understand the result of the election, but I do think that there is a certain profound lack of empathy in asserting that the only reason someone could have voted the way they did is because they saw some fake news. If you believe that then, I don’t think you have internalized the message that Trump supporters are trying to send in this election.
The quickest way to refute the fact that this surely had no impact is why would you think there would be fake news but not on the other. We know we study this, we know that it’s a very small volume of anything. Hoaxes are not new on Facebook. There have been hoaxes on the internet and there have been hoaxes before. We do our best to make it so that people can report that and so that we can as I said before share people the most meaningful content that we can.
We’ve studied this a lot because as you can imagine I really care about this, I want what we do to have a good impact on the world. I want people to have a diversity of information. So this is why we study this stuff to make sure we are having that positive impact. For whatever reason, all the research suggests that this isn’t really a problem and I can go into that in a second but for whatever reason we have had a really hard time getting that out.
But here is the historical analogy that I think is useful on this. If you go back 20 years and look at the media landscape, there were a few major TV networks in any given local area. There were a few major newspapers that had an editorial opinion and those were the opinions that you got all your news filtered through.
Regardless of what leaning you have on Facebook politically, or what your background is, all the research shows that almost everyone has some friends who are on the other side. Even if you’re a Democrat and 90 percent of your friends are Democrats, 10 percent of your friends are Republican. Even if you live in some state or some country, you’re going to know some people who live in a different state or a different country.
So what we found, and you can go through everything, you can go through religion you can go through ethnic background, just all of these different things. In a lot of cases, the majority of someone’s friends might fit their beliefs, but there are always some outliers. That means that the media diversity and the diversity of information you are getting through a social system like a Facebook is going to be inherently more diverse than what you would have gotten through watching one of the three news stations and sticking with that and having that be your newspaper or your tv station 20 years ago.
The research also shows something, which is a little bit less inspiring, which is that we study not only people’s exposure in News Feed to content from different points of view, but also what people click on and engage with.
By far, the biggest filter in the system is not that the content isn’t there, or that you don’t have friends who support the other candidate, or who are from another religion, but that you just tune it out when you see it. So, you have your world view, and you go through and I think we would all be surprised how many things don’t conform to our world view that we just tune out. We just don’t click on them and you know I don’t know what to do about that. We should work on that.
Presenting people with a diversity of information is an important problem in the world, and one I hope we can make more progress on. But right now, the problem isn’t that the diverse information isn’t there, it’s actually, by any study, more there than traditional media in the last generation, but we haven’t gotten people to engage with it in higher proportions.
Featured Image: Paul Sakuma Photography