Mark Zuckerberg says Facebook is a technology company, not a media company. Jack Dorsey calls Twitter a platform designed to instantly share ideas and information without barriers. Neither Zuckerberg nor Dorsey call their firms media companies, neither describe their businesses as creating content. However that is in direct contradiction to the way in which their millions of users view and proliferate news – and many of these stories are often fake and/or inaccurate.
I believe that we still need humans in the mix, specifically well trained editors and reporters who fact check, compare and contrast, and give us the “who what when where and why” with as little editorial bias as humanly possible.
Earlier this year, I produced an event called Paradigm or Paradox: Can Technology Make Companies More Human? During the conversation, the case was made that technology is improving our lives, but we are certainly not at the point where algorithms can replace human beings. All of us have stories dealing with automated systems breaking down and resolution only coming once we connect to a flesh and blood person. When you are truly stuck in the quagmire of the Internet, only a human can guide you out.
So what actually happened this summer when Facebook replaced its human editors with algorithms? By now, we’re all aware that within three days of implementing their new system, the top trending topic was false: that Megyn Kelly claimed she was fired from Fox News for supporting Hillary Clinton. And, despite Facebook making corrections and adjustments, this is only one of many fake news stories that has trended. Adding fuel to the fire, the algorithms are designed so that what we each see is a customized Newsfeed. In other words, we only see an individually curated version of the ‘news’ – real or not.
Another example of how trending topics can be misleading; on October 20, #Repealthe19th was buzzing. News articles covering the hashtag appeared throughout the day, but it was unclear to me why this topic was so hot. Was it the alt right calling for women to lose their right to vote? It took a Washington Post article the following day to understand why this hashtag had been dominating the Twitterverse. It was not because a large number of people wanted to repeal women’s right to vote; rather it came from people outraged by the anti-feminist hashtag. More people angered by the hashtag shared it than those who had used it in the first place.
In this age of social media, it is all too easy to post, tweet, like, and share false news. Journalism, as it existed before the advent of the tech platforms, wasn’t perfect, but it provided a filter. It still can. Let’s bring humans back into the foreground and make sure that what we are proliferating as news is as close to the truth as is possible. As President Obama stated at an innovation conference on October 13:
“We are going to have to rebuild within this wild-wild-west-of-information flow some sort of curating function that people agree to … The answer is obviously not censorship, but it’s creating places where people can say ‘this is reliable’ and I’m still able to argue safely about facts and what we should do about it.”