“It’s true — I saw it on Facebook”

“When my cousins’ Facebook timelines make no meaningful distinction between fact-checked magazine stories and flat-out lies from an AdSense scammer or a Fox News propagandist, the means by which meaningful public discourse can happen isn’t only damaged, it’s broken.”

Last year, my prediction was that 2016 would be the year journalism woke up to the dangers of permitting billionaires and secretively run corporations such as Facebook and Google to control the news. This prediction came, unfortunately, to pass. The devastating cost of ceding control of the country’s information to completely unaccountable and irresponsible Internet monopolists has now been made all too clear.

maria-bustillosMost dismayingly, Facebook’s failure to put a stop to the tsunami of propaganda and “fake news” on its site appears to have played a decisive role in the election of Donald Trump, though even now Facebook’s executives continue to deny their responsibility in the fracas, supplying no facts, argument, or reasoning for their convenient self-absolution for having blanketed the country in lies.

Whether it was generated by profit-seeking Macedonian teens or by propagandists of various stripes publishing sheer raving insanity (e.g., Pope Francis’s “endorsement” of Donald Trump), “fake news” was spread by hundreds of millions of Facebook users in the runup to the election. I was horrified to hear my own relatives at a family party last summer repeating the lie that Baltimore protesters against police violence had chanted “kill a cop” — a lie based on a Fox affiliate’s deliberately fraudulent editing of a protest video. Where did you see this, I asked my sadly misinformed and angry relatives? “It’s true — I saw it on Facebook,” one replied.

To speak out against “fake news” is not enough; that falsehoods can spread so fast and so damagingly online is only the beginning of the problem. Deeper and far worse is the growing disconnect between the public and the media. When my cousins’ Facebook timelines make no meaningful distinction between fact-checked magazine stories and flat-out lies from an AdSense scammer or a Fox News propagandist, the means by which meaningful public discourse can happen isn’t only damaged, it’s broken. I call this breakage dismediation, and it’s an entirely separate problem from “fake news,” a problem that is centered in the bad faith of profiteering publishers, from Mark Zuckerberg to the Macedonian teens he enables.

For 2017, I’ll venture a more hopeful prediction. There may still be time for the press to free itself of the dangers posed by Google, Facebook, and other online information gatekeepers. This can only be achieved by creating hard paywalls, and designing and instituting new safeguards against corporate encroachment over media. The good news is that the public is becoming aware of the threat posed to a free society by propaganda and fake news, and is therefore increasingly ready and willing to pay for honest reporting. That the New York Times is seeing a tenfold increase in subscription growth rate year over year is a good sign. For the free press to survive, it is crucial that media forge a new alliance with the public with a view to protecting both from corporate influence. I am hopeful that the new year will see this imperative put in motion.

Maria Bustillos is a critic and writer in Los Angeles.

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