The outgoing US president has lamented an age where active misinformation can spread as quickly and easily as the truth. And he is not exaggerating
Barack Obama, facing the imminent handover to his bombastic successor, has plenty to be concerned about this week. But he took the time to express his concern about the impact of fake news online when he spoke to reporters on Thursday.
Obama, who was described in a detailed New Yorker interview as being obsessed with the problem since the election, described the new ecosystem of news online in which everything is true and nothing is true.
In an age where theres so much active misinformation, and its packaged very well, and it looks the same when you see it on a Facebook page or you turn on your television, where some overzealousness on the part of a US official is equated with constant and severe repression elsewhere, if everything seems to be the same and no distinctions are made, then we wont know what to protect, he told reporters in Berlin on Thursday. If we cant discriminate between serious arguments and propaganda, then we have problems.
Obama is not exaggerating. Worse yet, in the last weeks of the US election campaign, according to an analysis by Buzzfeed News, fake news whether claiming that the Pope had endorsed Trump, or that Clinton sold weapons to Isis actually outperformed real news on the platform, with more shares, reactions and comments.
Another widely shared story used a young picture of Donald Trump with variations on a quote he reportedly gave People magazine in 1998. If I were to run, Id run as a Republican. Theyre the dumbest group of voters in the country. They believe anything on Fox News. I could lie and theyd still eat it up. I bet my numbers would be terrific.
Yet Trump never said that. It is not even possible to know how widely the quote was shared, with a new version created every time another is flagged, and removed. Memes like this replicate across the internet like a virus in this way, so the quote, tantalising in its plausibility, is pitch-perfect for quick sharing.
Facebook has faced many controversies in its 12 short years, but has fumbled with the gravity and impact of its editorial power in an age where 62% of US adults now turn to social media for some or all of their news, according to the Pew Research Centre.
In the early days of the election, Facebook was criticised for what was perceived as overzealous curation of its trending topics chart. When conservative outlets accused the site of censoring right-leaning news stories, Zuckerberg fired the trending stories team and replaced them with an algorithm which almost immediately began to distribute fake news.
The problem went unaddressed. Sources told Gizmodo that high-level meetings in Facebook have been underway since May, when a planned update to identify fake news to Facebooks news feed was shelved after it was found to disproportionately impact right-wing sites, though Facebook officially denies this happened.
Part of the problem, experts say, is that many people share articles based on the headline alone and dont even read the story let alone apply any skepticism to the claims within.
Another viral story by the Denver Guardian claimed, completely falsely, that an FBI agent investigating Clinton had been killed in a house fire in Colorado. It prompted the Denver Post a newspaper that does actually exist and was founded in 1892 to explain that There is no such thing as the Denver Guardian, pointing out that address it listed as its base led to a tree in a Denver carpark.
In one way, the problem is not a new one. Publications like the National Enquirer in the US have long bent the truth, often shamelessly. But now, a fake story can much more easily masquerade as real because in Facebooks walled garden, all the posts look largely the same a New York Times investigation alongside a fake story claiming Taylor Swift endorsed Trump.
The ease of deception has given birth to a brand new cottage industry. In November Buzzfeed discovered that many of the pro-Trump fake news sites over 100 of them were being operated as for-profit click-farms by Macedonian teenagers.
By 5 November, Facebooks CEO Mark Zuckerberg was facing mounting pressure to address the problem. Of all the content on Facebook, more than 99% of what people see is authentic. Only a very small amount is fake news and hoaxes, he wrote on his Facebook page. The hoaxes that do exist are not limited to one partisan view, or even to politics. Overall, this makes it extremely unlikely hoaxes changed the outcome of this election in one direction or the other.
Experts say this statement sounds like Zuckerberg is in denial. As long as Mark Zuckerberg refuses to understand his own system, there is no hope for Facebook reforming itself, said Siva Vaidhyanathan, professor of media studies at the University of Virginia.
Facebook and its leaders have consistently applauded themselves for connecting millions of people around the world and enabling friction-free conversation, and have gladly taken unwarranted credit for pro-democracy movements in different parts of the world, he said. And yet Zuckerberg himself has denied any moral responsibility for the fact that Facebook has helped poison American democracy.