Sounds Fake But Okay: Thoughts on Facebook’s Efforts to Fight Fake News

Facebook can’t solve the problem of fake news but it wants to make sure the conversation around it is happening on Facebook.

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Last week, Facebook released several tips on how to identify false and misleading news stories along with new tools users can use to report whether a news source is fake or not. This is part of Facebook’s post-election awakening as the company has come under fire for the proliferation of fake news on its platform.

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Yet, a glance at these tips doesn’t reveal any sort of understanding of what the “fake news” phenomenon is. The first tip: be skeptical of headlines as they are often catchy and misleading and doubly so for headlines in all caps. But what makes a catchy headline and how do I know when it is misleading?  Other tips cautions users to evaluate the sources and the evidence. Does the author have a good reputation? Is the publisher trustworthy? Are the studies accurate? But, as media scholar danah boyd points out, there is no shared definition of what constitutes a trustworthy source. It’s possible for two people to investigate the same news source and come to different conclusions about its trustworthiness.

Instead, the tips rely upon vague definitions of trust, truth, and accuracy that shift responsibility away from the platform and onto the user. These definitions allow the user to use preconceived ideas of what constitutes a trustworthy news source regardless of whether the source is actually accurate. Despite the fact that Facebook users will have different levels of media literacy, trust in various authorities, and ideological commitments, the vagueness of the tips relies upon the assumption that we all make sense of information in the same way and that our definition of truth is universally shared.

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Yet, research shows that people of all backgrounds tend to believe information that confirms their existing understandings. Further, when presented with information that contradicts their beliefs, the commitment to existing beliefs is often intensified. This doesn’t mean that people are stupid or lack critical faculties. It means that information processing and the formation of belief is based upon more than “truth” and “rational” evaluation. Appealing only to truth and accuracy does nothing to change the underlying structures that shape how we define these terms in the first place.

What the tips ignore is that many of the characteristics of fake news are also characteristics of mainstream news sources. Trustworthy sources also rely on shocking headlines, unnamed sources, and misleading photos and graphs. In addition, the modular nature of social media platforms means that both fake and true news sources rely upon the same social forces and infrastructure to spread their content. From the perspective of Facebook, any news is revenue generating, shareable content. From the perspective of news, there is no difference between a share or click from someone who believes it or from someone who rejects it – all that matters is going viral.

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Further, the emphasis on the individual user for determining truth aligns smoothly with the American obsession with personal responsibility and the bootstrap myth. Users can report news stories as false with new reporting tools and enough red flags may trigger third party evaluators to check the accuracy of a story. But, what is to stop people from being untrustworthy of the third party evaluations? And, if someone is mislead by a news story, is it their own fault for being mislead? If we know that different people have different, and sometimes conflicting, definitions of what constitutes trustworthy news, how can we expect this process to lead to the development of a shared consensus of meaning?

The problem of fake news is larger than Facebook. To place the responsibility for this problem on Facebook is not only to misunderstand the deeper issue but to grant even more power to a corporation that already has an incredible amount of influence. The company has already demonstrated that it is willing to play with conventions of truth and shareability when it comes to its community standards and expansions into new markets.  The problem is related to the deeper sociocultural processes through which we determine what truth and trustworthiness mean. It will take more than Facebook to solve this problem and I believe we should scrutinize the role social media companies wants to play in addressing it.

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Mama’s Gotta Work: The Feminist Origins of Wages for Facebook

Why do we do all of this work for free?

At the moment, Facebook currently has over 1 billion active users. If we were to tally the total number of posts (which would include photos, videos, and text status updates (including checkins) on the site, I imagine it would be in the trillions. Each post is linked to tons of metadata, points of information about the user including name, age, gender, locations both geographic and commercial. This information is then repurposed for targeted advertising, as you can purchase ads based on the users who fit a desired demographic, location, device, interest, or behavior. Targeted advertising is how Facebook generates the bulk of its profits. Start posting about baby showers or liking the local day care and your ads will be full of baby clothes, diapers, strollers, and other commercial objects for the soon-to-be parents. Pregnant? They might even know before you do. In short, this is how Facebook makes money.

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The content Facebook users generate is the product which is then sold to advertisers in exchange for access to our eyeballs and clicks. By assembling our personalities, desires, habits, preferences, and relationships, we provide businesses with the raw material through which they extract value. Put another way, Facebook users are part of the labor force which makes Facebook run. Some have made this connection and have decided that this form of labor deserves wages.

The Wages for Facebook campaign made just this connection. Created by artist and curator Laurel Ptak in 2014, the campaign demands to know: Why do we provide untold hours of unpaid effort into Facebook so that they might generate billions in profit from that labor?

“They say it’s friendship. We say it’s unwaged work. With every like, chat, tag or poke, our subjectivity turns them a profit. They call it sharing. We call it stealing. We’ve been bound by their terms of service far too long — it’s time for our terms.”

How much money does Facebook make from us? In 2015, the average Facebook user generated $12.76 in revenue for the company. This is projected to increase to $17.50 in 2017. However, analyzed by country and region, a Facebook user in the United States generates about $48 in revenue, even though 85% of Facebook users are outside the US or Canada.

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You can trace the origins of Wages for Facebook back to Wages for Housework campaign, a 1970’s Italian Marxist campaign which demanded that women be compensated for housework. The vast amount of time spent cooking, cleaning, tending house, raising children, and other duties were seen, and continue to be seen, as being done for the good of the family. Italian Marxist-Feminists sought to demystify the work in housework so that women might ultimately struggle against it. The wage was actually a step towards the abolition of housework.

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The Wages for Housework campaign is the precedent for Wages for Facebook, whose goal is also to demystify:  in this case, the labor that takes place interacting with our screens. But, the skeptic might ask, how is this actually work? If Facebook users voluntarily decide to use Facebook and share revenue-generating information, then isn’t that their choice? Further, if all of this is for leisure and the joy of sharing, then is it actually labor? Ptak might say that this is the logic of capital at work – a logic that has convinced us to accept unpaid labor in many forms. We are seen not as laborers who might have solidarity in a common struggle, but as users or potential friends.

In order for the idea of Wages for Facebook to make sense, one has to make the leap and imagine oneself not as a free internet user, surfing the web and participating at will in various forms of social media, but as a laborer in the digital economy. Ptak has observed that this is a difficult leap for some to make. Indeed, the very idea of Wages for Facebook feels alien as it rolls of the tongue. But, the supposed implausibility of the campaign is not a critique. For one, since when is something we choose to do not work? What does choice have to do with whether or not something is considered work? In addition, what about the number of people whose “actual” job it is to interact with Facebook? The company employs almost 14,000 with offices around the world. Outside of Facebook itself, there are thousands of people employed in fields like advertising and PR, people who receive their own wages (or salary) to interact with Facebook and other social media sites. It is so well known that celebrities and politicians have staff managing their social media that they sometimes resort to initials to indicate when a post is actually by them rather than simply on their behalf.

Further, wages for Facebook already exist in some sense: Facebook employs many people to do “content moderation” – the constant removing of offensive and questionable material from our feeds. Facebook came under fire recently when it was revealed that humans, not algorithms, influenced what was displayed in the trending news ticker. Putting aside the question of whether algorithms are neutral (they aren’t), this situation brings to the fore issues of who does all the hidden labor that makes our online lives seem so seamless. Similar to the women who scan books for Google, much of this work is done by low-wage laborers. Clearly, there is much labor that goes into making our social media seemingly free and fun. Why not admit that our contributions are also a form of valuable labor?

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While the argument for wages has gained some steam, it doesn’t yet have a strong movement behind it. There are, however, groups of people who have taken up this argument in a different form: artists and freelancers. From unpaid internships to artists and writers producing work for free, the current iteration of neoliberal capital attempts to hide unpaid labor under the guise of leisure, passion, and creativity. For the promise of future, potential earnings, employment, or skills, many people are asked to provide their work in exchange for exposure.  But, as anyone who has produced any sort of creative work online can tell you, exposure doesn’t pay the bills. Artists such as Will Wheaton have declined to write for multi-million dollar enterprises like the Huffington Post because they refuse to pay their writers. Other writers, such as Yasmin Nair have also commented on the absurd notion that writers should be expected to write for free since writing is a “labor of love” (an expression that still has the word labor in it). Sites like Patreon have come into being precisely as a response to artists who struggle to find people to support their work, transforming the centuries old practice of patronage for the digital age. If we can accept that artists and other creative workers should be compensated for their work, then perhaps we can begin to extend the argument to our unpaid labor on social media sites like Facebook.

One must be careful to not get caught up in the practicality (or lack thereof) of the campaign. As the Wages for Facebook website states, the purpose of demanding wages for Facebook is to undermine the logic of wage labor in general. Wages for Facebook is deliberately utopian; it is a form of consciousness-raising. The goal is not to be paid for our labor for Facebook, but to question labor and wages as we currently understand them. The demand for wages for Facebook is a demand to make that labor visible. And, once this labor is visible and demystified, they gamble, we can better critique and refuse it.

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Additionally, demanding wages for Facebook can put us on a path towards rejecting the commodification of our relationships and the exploitation of social relations. Facebook and other sites have an active interest in not only the obfuscation of labor but in the disguising of this labor as a form of pleasure, as seen in Facebook’s potential plan to weigh posts in the News Feed based on how we React.

While most utopian dreams involve grand and sweeping changes (the eradication of sexism or racism, for example) Wages for Facebook seems deceptively mundane in scope. But, it is in this mundanity that we find its power and reach. 1 billion people use Facebook daily and it has managed to integrate itself into everyday social life on a global scale. While Wages for Facebook asks a simple question (Why do we do all of this work for free?), its reach is extraordinary in the sense that it calls into question some of our most basic socioeconomic relations (What qualifies as work?). Social relations emerge and are constituted in the everyday and it is in the everyday where our most familiar habits and beliefs are formed. Like the demand for wages for housework, wages for Facebook demands a reformulation of everyday relations.

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Feelings and How to Mine Them

About a month ago, Facebook released a redesigned “like” feature, with the addition of animated emoji to represent 5 additional emotions. Now, in addition to liking something, you can love (heart) it or react with haha, wow, sad, or angry emoji.

reactions-graphics-video_480.gifFacebook only used to know whether or not you “liked” something, or, rather, whether or not you found something worthy of your attention enough to pass that information along to others. For years, many lobbied unsuccessfully for a dislike button. How often, after all, have you felt awkward “liking” a post about a sad or depressing topic? At long last Facebook relented. But instead of feeling all the feels, Facebook now wants you to feel just some of them.

With the new reactions, we can now sort our attention into discrete categories. This allows Facebook to fine tune our attention and interest. Now, the company can distinguish between the things we like, love, things that excite us, and things that inspire anger. But, only these things. You still can’t indicate mixed emotions. And, oddly, you still can’t express “dislike.” You can only express things that are in the range of the predetermined responses that Facebook gives us. Our nuanced and often cloudy emotional responses are flattened and compartmentalized into distinct “Reactions.” What we usually call our “mixed feelings” are deemed redundant and removed. After all,according to Facebook’s own PR team, the goal of Reactions is to keep Facebook happy and positive and to show and spread those happy feelings (read: posts) with others.
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In actuality, Reactions are a way for Facebook to develop more sophisticated algorithms to filter content and sell ads. The algorithm will feed you less “Sad” and more “Wow” so that you stick around. Happy people, studies show, share and post more. Dominic Pettman writes that “the PowerPoint Posse have figured out how to incite, tickle, and channel fleeting feelings into reliable revenue streams.” Facebook reactions are just a further demonstration of how our feelings are captured and transformed into revenue. These feelings are then incorporated and turned back upon us through algorithmic feeds and targeted ads. In effect, our fleeting feelings actually come back to haunt us.

How did we get to this idea that there are just six basic emotions anyway? And where else do we see this in popular culture?

The Disney Pixar film Inside Out tells the story of 11-year old Riley and the five emotions in her mind (Joy, Fear, Disgust, Anger, and Sadness) that try to guide her through the trials and tribulations of her family’s move from snowy Minnesota to tech capital San Francisco. As the story develops, we are presented with Riley’s increasing frustration and disappointment at the move while inside her head, Joy, Riley’s lead emotion, tries to manage the other emotions. When Sadness makes Riley cry in front of her class on the first day of school, Joy attempts to stop the memory of the experience (depicted as colored marbles) from being transported to long-term memory. This results in Joy and Sadness getting lost in the maze of memory and without their guidance, Riley becomes listless and depressed. The story becomes a grand adventure as Sadness and Joy attempt to make it back to the mind’s Headquarters.

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Throughout the film, Joy reminds all of the other emotions to think positively and to put on a good face for Riley’s parents.  The emotions attempt to quarter off Sadness as she becomes increasingly despondent and starts affecting Riley’s mood. Led by Joy and encouraged by Riley’s parents, they refuse to allow her to fully experience the sadness and loss that results from leaving life behind in Minnesota. . This emphasis on joy and positiveness, only increases Riley’s frustration which, when forced, only exacerbate Riley’s internal conflict and almost lead to the death of Joy personified towards the end of the film.
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Left to right: Disgust, Anger, Joy, Sadness, Fear

What can this popular narrative tell us about Facebook’s affect-mining ambitions? Similar to the emotions in Inside Out, Facebook has condensed the complicated and often confusing emotions people experience in their everyday lives into relatively few, distinct responses and interpretations. While Inside Out could be said to be about the emotional growth of a child, Facebook Reactions, in their quest to convey emotions as discrete and universal, can be thought of as infantalizing all of us. And Facebook does not present us with a way to mix emotions, unlike Inside Out, where the resolution of the plot comes in the realization that Riley’s experiences can be saturated with complicated and mixed feelings (the multi-colored memory marbles).

In fact, Facebook enlisted the help of the same psychologist who consulted for the development of Inside Out! One of the stronger elements of the film was its painting of Sadness as a necessary component to the human experience, not something to be quartered off and shunned, unlike the algorithms which will filter out the things we find disheartening.

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According to one of the design directors at Facebook, Reactions needed had two necessary criteria: universality and expressiveness. The emotions needed to be cross-cultural so that they would work everywhere Facebook is used, and they needed to be expressive, accurately conveying an appropriate emotional response. Through this, Facebook seeks not only to limit the types of reactions we can have to content, but also streamlines and universalizes the experience of it.

As Robbie Gonazales writes on Wired “not only, then, do we not want negativity directed at ourselves, but we also don’t want to level it at others. In that light, Reactions make much more sense. They may not reflect the world in which we live, but they’re a good deal closer to the one we want.” So the world we apparently want is one free from negativity – where our online experiences are filtered so that anything we React to with disgust or sadness is algorithmically disappeared. And Facebook is only happy to oblige and give us a world (the world mediated through Facebook anyway) without sadness or loneliness, even if that loneliness might be exacerbated by these media. As Pettman reminds us, “social media takes the guesswork out of loneliness, but not necessarily the sting.”

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Can We Be In Sync? A Review of Pettman’s Infinite Distraction

Infinite Distraction is a polemical look at the state of the internet and social media. Dominic Petman, a Professor of Culture and Media at the New School in NYC, expanded it from a Facebook post he wrote into a book looking at the ways in which new media increasingly modulates daily experience, through the creation of specifically tailored feeds. which are meant to disperse people into emotional micro-experiences, where “we never feel the same way as other potential allies and affines at the same moment.” (pg 29)
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Reading this book reminded me of Bifo Berardi’s The Soul at Work, where Berardi discusses the progressive mentalization of work and the extreme emphasis on cognitive labor, which is characterized by the manipulation and combination of signs and information. Pettman would probably agree with Berardi on the two main ideas of his book: hypersynchronization (the standardization of experience) and hypermodulation (the compartmentalizing and interchangeability of experience). Berardi is more interested in the decline of worker movements and labor activism than Pettman is, and spends a good portion of his book on that topic. Berardi also focuses on the exploitation of cognitive labor, which is what Pettman also seems to describe, even if he doesn’t necessarily use that term. Hypermodulation, taken with Berardi’s of the deterritorialization of signs and capital, reveals a global structure that prevents solidarity and makes organization difficult.
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Media companies and their execs and engineers believe they are free of ideology and bias in their attempts to globalize a specific type of human experience at the expense of others; an experience that is quite profitable for the companies in question. Pettman does not seek to blame specific individuals and in some ways he is correct about that, as it is difficult to accuse the media of covering up “the truth.” “Rather, incessant and deliberately framed representations of events are themselves used to obscure and muffle those very same events.” (pg 11). The best example of this is the Facebook “Trending” feed, which placed news about the Flint water crisis next to the latest Kim Kardashian selfie. Content tries to go viral. It tries “to become an event,” (pg 70) where mutually exclusive ideas are granted compatibility and legitimacy.
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So, is Mark Zuckerberg’s face Facebook? Maybe so, since he is so vocal abut his work and online presence and his impact is just easier to discuss and observe. After all, no one talks about Tumblr’s creator David Karp like Zuckerberg, despite the strong negative feelings about “tumblr culture.” (Tumblr was bought by Yahoo, thus becoming absorbed into a large media conglomerate. Facebook shattered and restructured media in new ways and creates and controls a market far grander than Tumblr. I would argue Zuckerberg is more akin to Bill Gates).
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While Pettman is more interested in social groups, what would he say about the role of the individual? When the individual is treated as the ultimate social unit, they can and do great and powerful things as individuals. We can point to individuals and their actions in these instances as the effect of their decisions is so pervasive, as seen in India’s rejection of Facebook’s free internet scheme, which some have called digital colonialism. His response would probably be that, while true, they are still synchronized to a strong degree to support certain behaviors and ideas that are in line with neoliberal economics, which I would agree with. Perhaps the extreme power of these individuals is the illusion resulting from hypermodulation that Pettman discusses.

The weakness of Infinite Distraction lies in its brevity. It is a short little book that explains his two main ideas and what other people have to say about attention/distraction. I like his understanding of attention and distraction as two sides of the same coin and his analysis that contemporary media is about buying bits of that attention/distraction. It would be interesting to see him discuss how people want to buy into this distraction even as they resist and moralize it. Another analysis that would have been interesting is how the culture tak surrounding these phenomena is usually centered around those who are most vulnerable (the poor, students, marginal workers, etc). For example, hypermodulation affects employment in the form of the gig economy and and the precarity of independent labor that is not unionized and protected. The eradication of and fear of difference in the form of ultranationalism and anti immigration sentiment, which is related to the entitled opinion that everything should be consumable and synchronized to my ways (read: white, male, American or Euro-centric) of thought and being. An analysis of the analog base (which bodies are designing these systems) of this synchronicity would be beneficial. Ultimately, Pettman is optimistic and argues for a rethinking of distraction as an ally which can allow us to interrupt and break traditional modes of thinking and being.
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