On November 5th, 2016, the Denver Guardian posted a story on Facebook about the mysterious death of an FBI agent investigating Hillary Clinton's emails. This story went viral, and was shared on Facebook over 560,000 times, making it comparable to the most shared stories of the Washington Post and the Los Angeles Times. What should concern us here is not that this story went viral just before the election. Nor even that this story is fake. What should concern us is the fact that there is no such thing as the Denver Guardian.
While it is easy to see why Facebook would be motivated to let users continue the practice of sharing without caring, it is hard to see what motivation users have to engage in this practice. Is this simply an instance of the age-old problem of gossiping, or, as Jonathan Swift put it in 1710, that “falsehood flies, and truth comes limping after it”? If so, then concerns surrounding the dangers to democracy posed by social media platforms seem to have less to do with the nature of the media or of the platforms and more to do with the nature of the social.
However, as Facebook encourages users to constantly post content in order to be social, and to constantly post content likely to get attention in order to remain social, then Facebook encourages users to share attention-grabbing content. In other words, it is quite possible that Facebook users spread fake news, not because they don’t care about what they are sharing, but because they care about being social, which, thanks to the influence of Facebook, means they care about being seen by the algorithm.
If we want to remove fake news from social media platforms then we must begin by understanding how these platforms influence us, how these platforms shape what “truth” means. The influence of platforms on us is both pervasive and invisible, for which reason we are led into the false dichotomy of thinking that either the platforms or the users are to blame for what happens on social media since we think that either programming determines human behavior or humans determine human behavior. The truth is of course more complicated.