Dismissing the idea that fake stories in Facebook’s News Feed influenced the outcome of the U.S. election, Mark Zuckerberg, speaking at Techonomy16, grabbed global headlines and no breaks from tech reporters.
In a one-hour on-stage interview with Techonomy founder David Kirkpatrick, Zuckerberg acknowledged the enormous impact of News Feed, which he said is accessed daily by more than half of the site’s nearly 2 billion users—mostly, he said, to connect with friends and family.
Kirkpatrick asked Zuckerberg to comment on post-election pushback from “people who feel you distorted the way people perceived information during the course of the campaign either because of the filter bubble effect or because you didn’t filter out fake stories made to sell advertising.” (The phenomenon of hyperpartisan hoax articles was uncovered by a recent BuzzFeed investigation.)
More Facebook users follow and engage with Trump than with Hillary Clinton, but “the idea that fake news, of which it’s a very small amount of the content, influenced the election in any way is a pretty crazy idea,” the Facebook CEO said.
“Voters make decisions based on their lived experience,” he said. “People are trying to understand the result of the election, but 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 you haven’t internalized the message that Trump supporters are trying to send in this election.”
Compared to the media landscape of 20 years ago, where voters obtained information through a few major newspapers and TV networks, social media gives citizens today access to a far greater variety of sources, Zuckerberg said. “Regardless of what leaning you have on Facebook politically,” he said, “all the research would show that almost everyone has some friends on the other side. … the diversity of information is going to be more diverse than what you would have gotten through watching one of the three news stations.”
Instead, he said, Facebook’s studies show that “by far that biggest filter in the system” is personal bias that leads users to ignore stories that don’t conform to their own world view. “We just don’t click on them,” he said.
Still, tech writers reporting from the conference held Facebook’s feet to the fire. In “How Facebook Helped Donald Trump Become President,” Forbes’ Parmy Olson quotes an academic researcher who said Facebook’s studies “actually showed that the News Feed algorithm ‘decreases ideologically diverse, cross-cutting content’ that users see.”
At Vanity Fair today, Maya Kosoff writes, “it is not ‘crazy’ to argue that the inability or refusal of Facebook, now the single largest media platform in the world, to contain the growth of hoax news posts may have aided Trump’s victory.”
And Verge editor Casey Newton tweeted, “Facebook is now in the awkward position of having to explain why they think they drive purchase decisions but not voting decisions.”