Last week a video was published on Facebook and other social media networks that appeared to show that House Speaker Nancy Pelosi was drunk or crazy.
The video was viewed millions of times and shared by among others Rudolph Giuliani, President Trump’s personal lawyer. Trump later tweeted “PELOSI STAMMERS THROUGH NEWS CONFERENCE.”
It was not an unexpected response to Pelosi’s call for our prayers for Trump and an intervention by friends and family after the president abruptly left a meeting with her and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer intended to discuss an infrastructure plan.
But there was a problem. The video was fake. And not even a good fake.
It was easily and quickly determined that the video was subtly slowed down and then pitch-corrected to create the appearance that Pelosi was drunk or incapacitated. The release of the original video shows Pelosi speaking in a normal manner.
YouTube removed the fake video – after it amassed thousands of views. Twitter and Facebook did not, although Facebook eventually added “fact check” links to the clips.
Responding to fierce calls to remove the video, Facebook defended its decision to leave the video up.
“We think it’s important for people to make their own informed choice for what to believe,” said Monika Bickert, a company vice president. “Our job is to make sure we are getting them accurate information.”
This response would be troubling enough had the Mueller investigation not found that Russia’s Internet Research Agency used Facebook to spread false and inflammatory information to 126 million people to influence the last presidential election on behalf of Trump.
Or that Facebook had removed more than 3 billion abusive, fake accounts from October to March – leaving the question of how many abusive, fake accounts they missed.
But what makes Facebook’s response even more frightening is its role as a news source for Americans.
A Pew Research study updated in December 2018 shows that 68 percent of Americans still get their news from social media.
And Facebook is by far the No. 1 source of this news with 43 percent of Americans getting their news on Facebook and Facebook subsidiaries – Instagram and WhatsApp – at 8 percent and 2 percent.
This is an unprecedented concentration of power in the hands of a private company. Just imagine if one company owned 53 percent of what is broadcast over television.
We are not sure whether to be worried, relieved or both by the fact that the study also found that 57 percent of social media news consumers expect the information they receive there to be “largely inaccurate.”
Despite being a source of news for more than 35 percent of Americans and earning $16 billion in advertising in the last quarter, Facebook usually does not call itself a media company, arguing instead that it is a tech platform.
This is an important distinction.
Under Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, which was intended to spur innovation and encourage start-ups, Facebook and social media companies – unlike newspapers and broadcasters – cannot be liable for content users’ posts on their sites.
This is why the fake Pelosi video can remain on Facebook and Twitter, but would never be broadcast or be published by a newspaper.
It also helps explain another frightening trend in news – the decline of newspapers.
Since 2004, 1,800 newspapers have closed entirely, according to a University of North Carolina Study. The result is that one of five Americans live in a “news desert” with little or no access to reliable local media.
And in many places, newspapers are “ghosts” of their former selves with far few employees.
Between 2008 and 2017, newsroom employment dropped by 23 percent, according to the Pew Research Center. Already this year, more than 2,000 media jobs have been lost.
Numerous studies show that the absence of newspapers invites bad behavior by both public officials and private companies.
Oddly enough, a Pew study found that 71 percent of Americans believe their local news outlets are doing “very” or “somewhat” well financially.
It is true that newspapers, especially those published weekly, are generally doing better on Long Island. But it is not easy going for any of us.
Especially when we have to hire people who actually go out and gather the facts and others who make sure what we publish is true.
Adding insult to injury, Facebook does not pay for its content. Consumers, including newspapers, post for free and in the case of newspapers after paying staff to report and edit.
A number of solutions have been proposed in response to complaints about Facebook and other social media companies starting with treating them as publishers rather than technology companies.
Todd Smith, a newspaper publisher in Vermont, recently offered what seemed to offer Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg a fair deal.
“He just needs to adhere to the same publishing guidelines we do: No obscenity; No fighting words; No defamation; No child pornography; No perjury; No blackmail; No incitement to violence; No true threats; No solicitations to commit crime,” Smith said.
It’s hard to argue that a company that made $16 billion in advertising revenue in the last quarter is not a media company.
And even Facebook has made the argument when it suited its purposes.
In a lawsuit filed by an app startup, which alleged that Facebook developed a “fraudulent scheme” to exploit users’ personal data, Facebook argued last year that its decision about “what not to publish” should be protected because it is a “publisher.”
Time for Congress to settle the argument.
Chris Hughes, a co-founder of Facebook, recently called for breaking up Facebook, arguing that “because Facebook so dominates social networking, it faces no market-based accountability.”
Hughes noted that the company is worth $500 billion and by his estimate receives 80 percent of the world’s social networking revenue.
There was once a guy around here by the name of Theodore Roosevelt who led the charge against concentrations of wealth and markets. They even named Nassau County’s government office building after him. So who knows.
But that is not something that’s going to happen soon.
In the meantime, we hope people bothered by the real fake news found on social media will appreciate and support the people who work hard to present the facts in their own communities.