Profit motive, on the part of Macedonians or Americans, was not the only reason to share fake news, of course — there was an obvious ideological motivation to lie to or mislead potential voters — but the fake-news industry’s commitment to “engagement” above any particular political program has given it a terrifyingly nihilistic sheen that old-fashioned propagandists never displayed. (Say what you will about ratfucking, dude, at least it’s an ethos.) And at the heart of the problem, anyway, is not the motivations of the hoaxers but the structure of social media itself. Tens of millions of people, invigorated by insurgent outsider candidates and anger at perceived political enemies, were served up or shared emotionally charged news stories about the candidates, because Facebook’s sorting algorithm understood from experience that they were seeking such stories. Many of those stories were lies, or “parodies,” but their appearance and placement in a news feed were no different from those of any publisher with a commitment to, you know, not lying. As those people and their followers clicked on, shared, or otherwise engaged with those stories — which they did, because Trump drives engagement extremely bigly — they were served up even more of them. The engagement-driving feedback loop reached the heights of Facebook itself, which shared fake news to its front page on more than one occasion after firing the small team of editorial employees tasked with passing news judgment. Flush with Trump’s uniquely passionate supporter base, Facebook’s vast, personalized sewer system has become clogged with toxic fatbergs.
And it is, truly, vast: Something like 170 million people in North America use Facebook every day, a number that’s not only several orders of magnitude larger than even the most optimistic circulation reckonings of major news outlets but also about one-and-a-half times as many people as voted on Tuesday. Forty-four percent of all adults in the United States say they get news from Facebook, and access to to an audience of that size would seem to demand some kind of civic responsibility — an obligation to ensure that a group of people more sizable than the American electorate is not being misled. But whether through a failure of resources, of ideology, or of imagination, Facebook has seemed both uninterested in and incapable of even acknowledging that it has become the most efficient distributor of misinformation in human history.
Worst of all, it’s not clear there’s any remedy.