In social networks, as in so many other things in life, the blessing contains a curse. Internet-based networks keep us instantly connected; we access an infinite amount of news and documents; we know more than ever about more issues. The counterpart to this, as we well know, is the difficulty in choosing what content we consume and which to trust. Along with certain facts, we are exposed to lies, distortions and hate messages. None of that alienates us from the networks, so we experience a constant and uncomfortable contradiction: We are perplexed, or nearly so, about the daily parade of thousands of phrases and images with which we ratify or adjust our conceptions of the world and its countless facets; at the same time, we know we are subject to exaggerations and lies that we have ended up tolerating even though they pollute the public space and often deceive us.
Post-truth, in its most complete sense, is the circulation of false information whose credibility is reinforced because it is disseminated on social networks in which people find content that fits their preferences. On Facebook, Twitter, Instagram or YouTube, among other spaces, we usually look at the content placed by people or institutions with whom we sympathize. When it is propagated by sources in which we have confidence, this construction of echo chambers where what we like to hear is replicated leads us to create false information.
Social networks, especially Facebook, give us more of the same. If we click on stories and pictures of a soccer team, from then on the algorithms of that network will show us other similar content. With information about public affairs, that peculiarity reinforces the convictions of those who already have a position and moves them away from other points of view. The "personalization" of content appropriate to the approaches and topics that we like harms public deliberation.
The press has always been conducive to, and a social catalyst for, deliberation. Now, however, the proliferation of content available on the internet, and the delays and carelessness of the media have accentuated the difficulties of journalism companies. Print newspapers are increasingly less read, and publishers generally bet on sensationalism to the detriment of quality in order to make their way into the digital jungle. The eagerness to reach enough clicks to obtain dividends for the publicity to which they lead, motivates numerous online media to assemble dumb, scandalous and insubstantial content.
Now Facebook says it will promote quality journalism. Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg announced that there will be a new section called Facebook News, with information selected by a team of diverse and experienced journalists. That innovation will begin in the United States, based on a selection of the principal national and local newspapers in that country. Facebook will pay for the content.
The selection and ranking of news by experienced informants are a vindication of professional journalism. Also, Zuckerberg's decision to have his article, originally published in The New York Times, appear in newspapers around the world has a been an interesting gesture.
So far on our Facebook walls, in addition to items placed by our network friends, we see news chosen by the algorithms that have encoded our preferences. On Facebook News, the filter will initially depend on the journalists in charge of that service, but a selection defined by the computer programs will be maintained.
The "customization" that will continue to exist will imply biases defined by the preferences of each user. If I usually look at texts and images favorable to a political party, and even more so if I usually “like” this content, then they will give me more news with that orientation. Facebook News does not resolve the echo chamber effect. On the other hand, it is possible that the participation of journalists is temporary, until the algorithms (that is, the small programs that monitor our tastes and locate new content according to those tastes) have been sufficiently developed. The new initiative indicates that the bias and the fabrications in much of the news circulating on Facebook, as well as in other networks, bothers many users and worries the directors of the network.
There is no single or total remedy for the proliferation of false news that is facilitated by the freedom, openness, open access and even the anonymity that exists in that network of networks. All of these are attributes that need to be preserved.
Facebook News reproduces the tension between advantages and disadvantages that exist throughout the internet. In the first place, Zuckerberg’s company is increasing its cultural and political power, which is no small thing. By being in charge of the selection of content that may be found in the new site, Facebook could advance biases and even hide matters according to its business interests.
On the other hand, the selection of media incorporated into Facebook News may have ideological biases. No one can question the participation in that initiative of such media as ABC News, The Wall Street Journal or The Dallas Morning News. But in its initial repertoire of 200 media sources, Facebook included Breitbart News, the ultra-right portal that, without shame and with abundant fabrication, has backed Donald Trump. In the professional press of the United States there have been many questions about that decision by Facebook: If the idea of professionalism that will be in the new service is represented by Breitbart, it is clear that it will not be a selection spreading reliable or quality journalism.
The third dilemma also results from a decision that seems plausible. Facebook will pay the selected media for the use of its content. This is a huge change in the online news financing system. Until now, advertising and, to a lesser extent, subscriptions, have been the sources of funding the press on the internet. Digital technology companies have made money by linking users to online media content or even accessing the content without paying for it. Facebook has established agreements with selected media to pay them amounts that, as published, may amount to several million dollars. It's fair that Facebook pays for content that allows it to do business. But by controlling access, selection and financing, it can become the global Big Brother in news management.
The Facebook News tab will surely lead to interesting content. But the rest of our walls will continue to be full of trivialities, noise and even hoaxes. On Facebook, responsible information competes with all kinds of messages and thus, it is confused and trivialized. That will not change in the mosaic of vanities, fun things, discoveries, virtues, ill will and miseries that are the postings on Facebook. The company also has not established limitations for the purchase of political propaganda that, without any guidelines, can be deceiving and lying.
The paradoxes of the internet, at least so far, continue to advance in vicious circles: The design of Facebook and other networks encourages the self-reliance of users in self-referential safe houses where false news is more credible; fake news weakens authentic journalism and, against that, the best option is to reclaim and strengthen professional journalism. However, in that process, as conceived by Zuckerberg and his advisers, Facebook is strengthening its central position and influence.
There is no complete solution, but those interested in quality journalism can look for it directly on the portals where it is published and support it with reading, clicks, participation, forwarding on the networks and, when possible, paying for the news, reports and comments that they are interested in. It's very good that Facebook supports quality journalism, but it doesn't have to be the only one, nor the main intermediary between the readers and that content.