Many of the things that keep our democracy healthy don’t appear in the Constitution or any federal law. President Obama made this point Monday when talking about an orderly transition from one presidency to the next:
“It’s not something that the Constitution explicitly requires but it is one of those norms that are vital to a functioning democracy, similar to norms of civility and tolerance and a commitment to reason and facts and analysis.”
The last few words of that sentence were the ones that caught my attention, and I started thinking about them again after reading an Op-Ed by Zeynep Tufekci.
Tufekci, a University of North Carolina professor, makes the case that Facebook is in denial about its role in spreading misinformation. During the presidential campaign, Facebook helped spread falsehoods — the Pope endorsed Trump! — to millions of people. Those falsehoods appeared in fake news articles, and Facebook did nothing to inform their users that the material in them was simply made up.
Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook’s chief executive, has said it’s “pretty crazy” to believe that fake news influences people in any significant way, but Tufekci persuasively lays out evidence to the contrary. Multiple studies have shown — and common sense backs up — that Facebook influences opinions and behavior.
“These are not easy problems to solve, but there is a lot Facebook could do,” Tufekci wrote. “When the company decided it wanted to reduce spam, it established a policy that limited its spread.” The step that Facebook announced Monday— refusing to display advertisements in fake stories — isn’t sufficient.
The media is in the midst of a historical transition right now. Some old news sources are shrinking or disappearing, and others — many of which rely on Facebook — are rising. There is nothing wrong with this change. Our country has survived the fading of news powerhouses, like the Saturday Evening Post, Life magazine and live radio broadcasts, before.
But whatever forms the new information sources take, they do need to provide “reason and facts,” neither of which is partisan. A healthy democracy depends on it. As Thomas Jefferson said, the people need “full information of their affairs.” Zuckerberg, by believing that Facebook is staying neutral, has in fact made a damaging choice.
The full Opinion report from The Times follows, including Geoff Dembicki on generational war and climate change.