It’s Too Easy to Blame Facebook

Throughout this calendar year, Facebook has engaged in a number of platforms and partnerships aimed at combatting the spread of fake news:  there is the Facebook Journalism Project, designed on partnerships with both the news media and the public on how digital storytelling can emerge in a thoughtful way while also combatting the spread of fake news; as well as the News Integrity Initiative, a partnership with, among others Mozilla and CUNY School of Journalism to tackle the rise of fake news. Within the last week the first pragmatic example of Facebook’s efforts arrived: a platform-embedded tip sheet for helping consumers spot fake news.

This is not the approach needed to ‘solve’ ‘fake news.’ Mike Caulfield notes the regressiveness of these suggestions (suggestions built on decades of advice rather than evidence), and Kris Shaffer annotated his criticisms of the Top 10 list

The obstacles existing in diffusive information literacy (and now media literacy, news literacy and digital literacy) have not changed in the 40+ years since information literacy became part of the academic lexicon.  We teach __________ literacy, we bring attention to the trouble of information digestion in a society of rapid consumption, and we have a history of measures showing aptitude in students in controlled spaces with ____________ literacy yet today, like in the past, the problem is growing.  Facebook’s solution is to take the old and put it in their new platform.  Facebook’s embedded tip sheet is CRAAP.

Or RADCAB. Or whatever older simplistic and decontextualized rubric has been applied in earnest in the past to address ________ literacy in the confines of an academic context.

I do worry about the rush to cast Facebook as the great Evil, the Silicon Valley solutionism run amok, however.  Not all response has been as thoughtfully critical as Caulfield and Shaffer, but instead has veered toward piling on a la Nelson from The Simpsons.

Yes, there is a cognitive dissonance in a platform bolstering efforts to be apolitical on topics that are at their heart political/ideological/evocative (and this is on the left as well as the right).  But if we are going to argue there is nothing at all new about Facebook’s solution to Fake News, we need to argue there is nothing at all new about Fake News, and note the long history of this hot topic.  If we are quick to rush to blame Facebook, we need to put that same lens on ourselves and the biases and assumptions we operate through.

Three months ago I published a dissent on fake news and the __________ literacy solution at Real Life Magazine. It was, to quote Bryan Alexander, a “ferocious critique” of the structures historically aligned to combat forgery and quackery:  universities, museums, historical/cultural/scientific societies, and libraries.  In short, I noted how ‘we’ blame fake news for the bombastic problems in society today.  The promised cultural solution, _______ literacy, seeks to apply critical thinking and 21st Century Skills to the problem, a modern twist on the historical promise of knowledge setting us free, happening through the historical institutions of knowledge diffusion. If we look at these institutions, however, we see not a history of emancipation but a history of conformity and dominant presumption. On the one hand we have people with earnest intentions working in these spaces to promote and provide upward mobility through knowledge (promises emerging in the late 19th Century and taking full force in the early to mid 20th Centuries), and on the other we have historical structures which longitudinally have existed to perpetuate the status quo (see the rise of neoliberalism in the late 20th Century, as well as Habermas’ work on the historical relationship between knowledge institutions and cultural perpetuation).  In today’s landscape of rising tuition, student debt, erosion of blue-collar employment and the deprofessionalization of white-collar labor, the promises of mobility in concert with deference to the status quo have been broken.  In this space, to take Walter Benjamin for a 21st Century spin, the emotivist allure of mass-produced content designed to manifest as individualism takes power. To quote the essay

Benjamin ends “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction” by arguing that “fascism attempts to organize the newly created proletarian masses without affecting the property structure which the masses strive to eliminate. Fascism sees its salvation in giving these masses not their right, but instead a chance to express themselves.” This recasts social media in a more sinister light. Fascism is on the rise not because students can’t tell fake news from the slanted news promulgated by hegemonic interests. Rather, fascism is resurgent because freedom of expression has turned out to have little to do with what we can create and much more to do with how much we can consume.

The promise of social justice and upward mobility through education has largely gone unkept, and many citizens who believed in democratic progress have turned to different promises. Information literacy fails not only because it serves a broken system, but because it is affectively beside the point. Its cerebral pleasure pales in comparison with fascism’s more direct, emotive appeals.

There’s been a lot of writing recently blaming postmodernism for the rise of fake news and the 2017 condition, the idea being the rejection of Truth has created a landscape where False reigns supreme.  This is a misread of postmodernism (which at its genesis is a rejection of modernism and not a theory to supplant modernism), which advocates for small, localized narratives in the place of large, global narratives.  Fake news is not the manifestation of localized narratives, it is rather the allowance for individuals to create their own personalized grand narratives, buoyed by the social media technology of the day which delivers the multimedia that concerned Benjamin in a manner that evokes individualism from the viewer but was designed, packaged, delivered and traced in a disciplined and direct meaning.

Small, localized narratives and the spaces necessary to cultivate distributed knowledge take significant work. There are historical examples of these negotiated and resistance spaces.  There are universities, libraries, museums and historical societies making strides to work in negotiation with the dominant paradigm.  And there are recent efforts as directly related to the spread of fake news – I think of the Digital Polarization Initiative as well as Antigonish 2.0.

But we do not make those strides when we cast blame on others while not minding our own ladders of inference. The result of the last 1-2 years of sociopolitical movement in Western societies has upturned some assumptions and beliefs about our societies and cultural progress.  This was a problem before Facebook’s embedded fake news tips, it was a problem before Facebook’s algorithm changes, and it was a problem before Facebook.  Heck, it was a problem before the term Information Literacy. The easy part is looking at today’s software giant and casting blame.  The hard part is looking at ourselves to see the similarities between what we blame them for and what we do to support.

Featured Image – These Old Discs by Alan Levine (CC BY 2.0)

About Rolin

Assistant Professor & Director of EdTech & Media at Seattle Pacific University. Consultant w/ RAM TEC. Work with faculty, teach students, explore non-formal learning spaces (Galleries, Libraries, Archives, Museums)

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