With Trump's election, Facebook wrestles with the power of fake news

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg is pushing back against charges that the proliferation of fake news on Facebook was one of the factors that contributed to Donald Trump’s meteoric rise to the White House. 

“To think it influenced the election in any way is a pretty crazy idea,” Zuckerberg said Thursday at the Techonomy conference in Half Moon Bay, Calif. He insisted only a “small amount” of fake news circulated on Facebook during this campaign, an unprecedented race that unfolded on social media as much as it unfolded on the physical campaign trail. 

Zuckerberg’s strongly worded dismissal is unlikely to end the controversy over fake news on Facebook. Nearly half of Americans get their news from the social network, according to the Pew Research Center. His comments add another layer to the increasingly complicated and consequential conversation about the role that fake news plays in today’s divided media landscape.

Zuckerberg argued the focus on fake news stories planted by groups seeking to profit from page views or sway public opinion just distracts people from examining the real reasons Donald Trump won enough support to pull off a historic election upset. 

“I do think there is a certain profound lack of empathy in asserting that the only reason someone could have voted the way they did is they saw some fake news,” Zuckerberg said, according to USA Today. “If you believe that, then I don’t think you have internalized the message the Trump supporters are trying to send in this election.”

In a statement, Adam Mosseri, vice president of product management at Facebook, struck a different tone, and acknowledged that “there’s so much more” the company needs to do to fight the spread of misinformation on its platform.

For some in Silicon Valley, the criticism of Facebook feels more than appropriate.

“It is a very good thing if people in Silicon Valley are contemplating the consequences of the inventions they delivered to an unsuspecting world,” Silicon Valley forecaster Paul Saffo told USA Today. “The fact that there’s any reflection going on at all is a very good sign. There has long been this naive view that technology is neutral and there’s nothing neutral about technology. The problem is we can never figure out which way it’s going to cut until it arrives.”

President Obama himself called out Facebook at a campaign rally for Hillary Clinton on the eve of the election.

“People, if they just repeat attacks enough, and outright lies over and over again, as long as it’s on Facebook and people can see it, as long as it’s on social media, people start believing it,” he said. “And it creates this dust cloud of nonsense.”

Fake stories have long run rampant on Facebook — both on users’ News Feeds, as users share content from inauthentic news sites to their personal networks, and on Trending Topics, the homepage module on Facebook’s desktop site that presents viral stories of the moment. (Speaking of misinformation: Just today, Facebook was rocked by an apparent bug that led to numerous users being told, mistakenly, that their friends were dead via memorial banners on their profiles.) 

Facebook has little control over what users themselves share to their own networks. Its algorithm promotes content based on engagement levels, and Facebook doesn’t make any kind of “value judgment” on the nature of the content that’s being shared, CNET editor Dan Ackerman told CBS News. 

But recent investigative pieces have pulled back the curtain on the vast landscape of highly partisan operations that live only on Facebook and gained extraordinary momentum this campaign season. These hundreds of pages, from Occupy Democrats to Fed-Up Americans to RightAlerts to Addicting Info, represent the “most disruptive, least understood force in media,” The New York Times wrote in August.  

Facebook has somewhat clearer control over Trending Topics, a feature that has been under fire in recent months for showcasing both conspiracy theories and false news reports. Facebook, which once employed a team of news curators to monitor and edit the Trending Topics section, laid off that team after an ex-staffer made anonymous claims that the section showed a consistent bias against conservative-interest news stories. Since August, Trending Topics has been controlled by algorithm rather than human curators.

That move, however, did not mean the end to Facebook’s headaches. 

In August, Facebook apologized after Trending Topics promoted a fake story about Fox News anchor Megyn Kelly, whose critical coverage of Donald Trump led the GOP nominee to launch a targeted campaign against her. The story, which falsely claimed that the cable channel had fired Kelly for being “a closet liberal who actually wants Hillary to win,” was from the right-wing website End The Fed. 

In September, news organizations and social media users sounded the alarm after Facebook’s Trending section promoted a so-called “9/11 truther” circulating the false claim that bombs and not terrorist-piloted planes brought down the Twin Towers in Manhattan. Under fire, Facebook removed the story from its Trending section.

Social media’s impact in shaping public perception and civic engagement is undeniable. Twenty percent of people surveyed say they have modified a personal stance because of content they saw on social media, according to the Pew Research Center. President-Elect Donald Trump’s largest megaphone this campaign was his Twitter account.

Facebook seems to be trying to have it both ways, Ackerman told CBS News.

“The paradox for Facebook and Zuckerberg is this: They want to claim very loudly that Facebook is very influential when it comes to choosing what car you’re going to buy, what phone you’re going to buy, what movie you’re going to go see,” Ackerman said. “And then they want to say they’re not really influential when it comes to these news stories affecting people’s election choices.” 

Emily Bell, director of the Tow Center for Digital Journalism at Columbia Journalism School, issued a call for Facebook to take more responsibility for the proliferation of obvious propaganda on its platform.

“Facebook, now the most influential and powerful publisher in the world, is becoming the “I didn’t do it” boy of global media,” she wrote. “Clinton supporters and Trump detractors are searching for reasons why a candidate who lied so frequently and so flagrantly could have made it to the highest office in the land. News organizations, particularly cable news, are shouldering part of the blame for failing to report these lies for what they were. But a largely hidden sphere of propagandistic pages that target and populate the outer reaches of political Facebook are arguably even more responsible.”

With more than one billion active daily users, Facebook is the world’s biggest distributor of information.  

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    Shanika Gunaratna covers science and technology for CBSNews.com