In 2006, the internet witnessed a major change. Two defining events took place: Twitter launched in March, and Facebook announced News Feed in September. That, changed everything.
The news feeds are partly generated by opaque algorithms designed to personalize content, including ad choices. This brought the end to surfing the internet one URL at a time. “This is how the Wild West was tamed,” says Ramesh Srinivasan, a professor at University of California, Los Angeles, UCLA who studies the impact of technology on society. That led to a radical shift in how people consume information. Rather than deliberately scouring blogs, forums and news sites, “information is finding us, but we don’t know how,” Srinivasan says.
This change sparked and supported new relationships, viral social good campaigns and pro-Democracy movements like the Arab Spring in 2011. But it also paved the way for filter bubbles, social media addiction, FOMO anxiety, and election meddling. For much of the past two years, Facebook (FB) and Twitter (TWTR) have faced mounting scrutiny over the role their feeds played in spreading fake news and disinformation campaigns intended to sow discord in the U.S. and abroad.
Traditional news agencies immediately began to seek how to leverage social feeds to grow their audiences. However, they failed to anticipate how much this technology would destabilize the media industry by “hoovering up” attention. Vivian Schiller who later worked as Twitter’s head of news said, “There is no way we imagined it would become so profoundly disruptive to the way people engaged with news. The notion of typing in a URL is ridiculous to the user. It’s a bad user experience,” Schiller says. Facebook and Twitter “created an efficiency for news.” Unfortunately, the arrival of social news feeds created an efficiency for fake news.
Renée DiResta, who researches disinformation online as the head of policy at Data For Democracy acknowledges that there has always been misinformation on the internet, but it wasn’t really centralized. The feeds then served as a perfect pipeline to funnel false information to what DiResta calls a “large, easily manipulatable” audience.
Currently, Facebook, Twitter and other companies are employing several means including using artificial intelligence and working with third-party fact-checkers to crack down on fake news and disinformation. But Facebook’s massive reach makes it very difficult to achieve this; almost too late.