Zuckerberg’s Theory of the Public Sphere

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From Wikimedia Commons.

Fake news is a problem for Facebook. Take a close look at the recommended articles under a link posted by a friend. How many of them link to serious news sources offering an important, thoughtful perspective? I surely need a Drudge report link to something totally asinine to answer an article in the New York Times. This isn’t to say that NYT is always right, but that presenting articles of wildly differing quality and veracity is not particularly helpful, it is one of the banal of journalistic sins: false balance. As Buzzfeed, which has somehow become a solid news source, reported Mark Zuckerberg has now publicly confirmed the problem of fake news in the feed. Facebook has changed the algorithm on a number of occasions to stop various fake news and clickbait operations, however these efforts have been for naught. For the purposes of historical record, I will rekey his statement:

eople naturally seek out things that fit their preferences. News Feed encourages greater diversity by also showing opinions from your friends and people you may disagree with. We can always do better at showing more of that content, but keep in mind that News Feed is already more diverse than most newspapers or TV stations a person might get information from that have a single editorial view. — Zuckerberg, September 7, 2016

Breaking down his statement:

First, homophily is a real thing and is well documented. McPherson et al (2001) is a great place to start. Really nothing to dispute here except the idea of this property deriving from nature, but that is a quibble.

Editorial Process

Second, Zuckerberg defense the newsfeed as it includes perspectives from those that you might disagree with. There are some heavier duty assumptions here that require investigation: a. does the feed include perspectives from people? b. do they disagree with you? c. does disagreement improve deliberation?

The a point: if one has friends that they disagree with and their postings are included in the feed, this seems reasonable and logical. At this point I want to break the elision of news/pr organizations loaded posts and friend’s posts. There is no reason to treat an automatically selected article from a bulk click site as equal to the site you linked. And, as to the b point, are we sure these folks really disagree? Contemporary mainstream journalism is haunted by false balance. Facts are redefined until every story has two equal and opposite sides, despite this being exceedingly rare. If Facebook is linking contrarian or troll articles, it is important to recognize that these people do not disagree with you in the context of a normative discussion of policy or the news as such, but they are pseudo-sadists trying to get a rise out of you. Facebook should likely not give automatically generated/content farmed material the respect to be considered an oppositional perspective, and they should take anything that looks like trolling as an anathema to their product, not the mana of discussion, debate, and deliberation.

A Model of Disagreement

Now the c sub point: why does Zuckerberg’s model of the public sphere include two-sided debate. Brendan Nyhan (professor of Government at Dartmouth) has demonstrated that opinion correction likely increases opinion polarization. Wait. Yes. You read that right, telling people that they are wrong can backfire. Now these backfires could be productive as Mullinix (2016) suggests, as they might strengthen partisanship which can be a part of a healthy democratic system. Is this way Zuckerberg meant? Is his plan to increase polarization? Likely not, although his statement doesn’t seem to think through a model of the public sphere in any meaningful way.

Third, the statement confirms that Facebook as an editorial view. A number of sources have reported that Facebook hates to be thought of as an editor, thus the editorial purge and the turn toward mechanical processes for news selection that only amplify the problems with their other products, like suggested links. Yet, Zuckerberg confirms that Facebook has an editorial position, a dual or possibly multiple editorial perspective. Although a news organization may have a single mandate, the degree to which ownership structures effect the production of media texts is disputed. Even the most partisan news organizations have breaks in their editorial facade. So, Zuckerberg is right that his editorial perspective might be more diverse, but it is surly an editorial perspective. For some reason he sees the problem as a lack of diversity. The complaint about fake news is distinct from the earlier accusation of Facebook’s liberal bias. Fake news is a much more damning accusation as it speaks to the quality of the product.

The Problem Going Forward

The central problem that comes through in Zuckerberg’s theory of the public sphere depends on the idea that exposing people to more diverse perspectives regardless of quality will improve civic life. By emphasizing a multiple editorial perspective, Zuckerberg seems to think he has no editorial perspective, which is false. The News Feed algorithm is always already an editorial form. Revisions in the Communication Act in 1996 may have absolved ISPs from defamation actions related to their editorial role, but it is still an editorial role. Telegraphing to the clickbaiters that you will always accept and even promote oppositional points of view gives them the keys to the kingdom. Even if one is enamored of the engineering problem solving cycle, the theory of the public sphere developed by Zuckerberg has already limited out the consideration of quality and editorial judgement as possible alternatives. Even if the problem solving cycle could be effective here, the best alternatives have already been excluded as they are not compatible with his naive theory of the public sphere. Of course Facebook would never take the truly radical step here and become Twitter, because we all know how that is turning out…

As long as Facebook continues to operate under the assumption that more is better and that all opposing view points are equivalent, a meaningful public conversation will be unlikely to form on the network. On an even deeper level, Zuckerberg’s theory misses the point that a strong public sphere takes work and judgement, it does appear on it’s own.

Associate Professor of Social Media. Oregon State University. Read my book: Selling Social Media (Bloomsbury Academic), 2018.

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