In 2016, post-truth was named Oxford Dictionaries’ word of the year. The same year a small town called Veles in Macedonia earned the strange notoriety of being a world capital for misinformation, its residents cashing in off the dissemination of mostly pro-Trump fake news articles.
That year fake news likely secured former President Donald Trump the election, but this year it nearly claimed our democracy.
During and after the 2016 election there was much talk of the foreboding nature of the post-truth era. There are at least four TED Talks from 2017 on the subject, along with a myriad articles.
The solution nearly all of them proposed, and the one that seems to have been the most widely accepted, was individual accountability. In the School of Communication, the impressions of this strategy are dispersed throughout the curriculum.
Classes ranging from communication studies, to photojournalism, to political science all warn of the dangers of fake news and extoll the virtue of media literacy.
This — like many of the attempted solutions of misinformation — is ostensibly good, but woefully insufficient.
Veles was certainly not alone in its promulgation of pro-Trump propaganda, but it was an excellent portrait of the cold, hard economics driving it. A town deprived of most of its industry, Vele’s average monthly income, according to Wired, is $371, while its unemployment rate is around 24%.
Normally jobless individuals were suddenly able to pull down $1,000 per month for five or six hours of work per day. Plus, the workflow was simple: Copy pro-Trump misinformation from far-right websites, post on their own site and then share the “article” widely in pro-Trump Facebook pages.
Before anyone goes off blaming impoverished people for the rise in misinformation, it’s worth noting that this is absolute peanuts compared to the true beneficiaries of the post-truth era: social media companies.
Facebook has 2.8 billion users. This is more than the populations of India and China combined. Its market value, according to Forbes, has doubled to $720 billion since 2016. It plays by far the largest role in the spread of falsities on matters of severe importance around the world.
In Myanmar, the military used the site to promote genocide of the country’s Rohingya minority. The propaganda led to tens of thousands of murders and rapes and caused a mass exodus of some 740,000 people, according to the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Human Affairs.
Facebook facilitated a genocide, but nothing happened to Facebook.
Nor was this a one-off. The site has been accused of facilitating anti-Muslim violence after terrorist attacks in Sri Lanka and allowing the spread of hate speech in India where Muslims are being stripped of their citizenship.
How can this be? Well, for one, United States citizens only care what Facebook does when it involves them.
In another Wired article, it compiles a list of the biggest Facebook scandals of 2018. After the entry on the Rohingya genocide, it lists the Cambridge Analytica scandal — one of a dozen or so revelations that Facebook is mining and selling people’s personal information — saying this is the big one.
To clarify, the incident when Americans were shocked that the information they surrendered to the whims of the internet and a private multinational corporation was being used against them is the big scandal. The murder and rape of tens of thousands of people? Just a bump in the road to the omnipotence of Mark Zuckerberg.
Remember “The Social Network”? That movie where Zuckerberg is just a broody, misunderstood genius? F**k that movie, and f**k Mark Zuckerberg.
Another more potent power preventing Facebook from suffering any substantial consequences for its complicity in the worst things mankind has to offer, has to do with the structure of global capitalism.
Facebook can behave however it wants because there is not an institution that directly oversees Facebook. It is a multinational corporation and as such, its is hard to pin down if it is shut down in one place. Like the decapitation of a Hydra, it’ll just sprout up elsewhere.
Exorbitant sounding fines and dragging Zuckerberg in front of Congress, where he tries to do his best impression of Jesse Eisenberg doing his best impression of him, will not work. The company’s net worth is $720 billion and being one of the most powerful people in the world necessitates you not having a conscience or shame.
The post-truth era goes on not because of Uncle Lester failing to verify his sources, but because we are allowing people to make billions of dollars off manipulating billions of Uncle Lesters across the world.
The best chance to get Facebook, and companies like it, to start functioning ethically is to heavily regulate it on a multinational front. Wealthy nations will have to lead this effort because they are where most ad revenue comes from.
Jail CEOs for noncompliance and companies will change their tunes. Put Zuckerberg on trial in the International Court of Justice in The Hague and suddenly Facebook will root out the misinformation problem.