Two days after Donald Trump’s election, Mark Zuckerberg was in the hot seat.
At a tech conference, an interviewer grilled Facebook’s chief executive about the fake news that proliferates there, suggesting it swayed the election toward Trump.
Zuckerberg scoffed, calling it “a pretty crazy idea.”
But since then, under fire (including from President Barack Obama), Facebook has taken positive steps.
Last Friday, Zuckerberg posted that he grasps the seriousness of the problem and outlined how Facebook might deal with it. He mentioned third-party verification services; better ways for users to flag hoaxes; and efforts to keep fake websites from getting rich on advertising dollars.
Now it’s time for a bolder move: Facebook should hire a top executive editor and give that person the resources, power and staff to make sound editorial decisions.
Zuckerberg may not want to call this person an editor, since he has insisted Facebook isn’t a media company. And indeed, Facebook does not produce news itself.
That’s fine. Whatever the title, Facebook needs someone who can distinguish a Pulitzer Prize-winning photograph from child pornography and who can tell a lie from a thoroughly vetted investigative story.
“Engagement” rules on Facebook. To oversimplify: The more an item is shared by friends, the more likely you are to see it.
Clearly, that’s not enough. What’s needed is sound judgment.
Facebook is a big news source – for some demographics, the leading one. Its influence will only grow.
Understandably, Facebook doesn’t want to turn into the world’s censor. It shouldn’t and doesn’t have to.
Zuckerberg said recently identifying truth is hard. Ben Smith, Buzzfeed’s chief editor, had a ready answer:
That might be so, he said, “for algorithms and epistemologists. But it’s something that professional journalists are asked to do every day, and it’s not actually that complicated.”
It comes down to judgment - the kind that can’t be done by code or by relying on well-intentioned but vague “community standards.”
The need for editorial judgment at Facebook didn’t start with this post-election finger-pointing. It’s been growing for many months.
Last summer, for example, Diamond Reynolds livestreamed a horrific scene on Facebook: Her boyfriend, Philando Castile, had been fatally shot by a Minnesota police officer. Her post was removed for about an hour – Facebook said due to a technical glitch – then restored.
In September, Facebook deleted Nick Ut’s Pulitzer Prize-winning photograph of a Vietnamese girl fleeing a napalm attack because it violated the platform’s standards on nudity and child pornography. When global outrage followed, it too was restored.
Emily Bell, director of the Tow Center for Digital Journalism at Columbia University, has called on Zuckerberg to change his mind about Facebook’s role in the media ecosystem and implored Facebook to “play a more active part in editing...and hiring actual people to do so.”
Editors, of course, are far from infallible. But this would put someone in charge at a high level who could help journalists and technologists talk to one another and who could make decisions based on sound judgment.
It wouldn’t stop all fake news. But Facebook’s appointment of an executive editor would be a step forward, bringing accountability and good sense where it’s sorely needed. It would also set an example for other tech companies and social platforms grappling with the same problems.
Another “pretty crazy idea”? Maybe so. But one whose time has come.