Facebook’s announcement last week that it would begin fact-checking fake news shared on its network in partnership with organizations like Snopes, ABC News, the Associated Press, and Factcheck.org produced on uproar on the right — and not without good reason.
Remember, for example, the list of alleged fake news sites that circulated back in November? It was created by a professor named Melissa Zimdars and was used as the basis for anti-fake news tools like a Chrome extension that would warn users whenever they visited one of the sites on the list.
The problem, as Reason’s Scott Shackford pointed out at the time, was that the list didn’t only include fake or even satirical news sites. It also included outlets like Breitbart, LewRockwell.com, and Redstate.
Whatever one’s views of these sites — and the first two in particular have a strong ideological slant one could easily argue colors their presentation of information (that is not necessarily a critique when coming from me, by the way) — they are decidedly not fake news in the way one commonly conceives of it. It’s one thing to argue these sites are biased, misleading, or wrong, but that is not the same as fake, and blurring these categories isn’t helpful.
People on the right — which I here use as a broad term to include Donald Trump supporters, more traditional conservatives, and lots of people in between — immediately noticed that the non-fake news sites included in the fakes news sites list were right-of-center. So when Facebook announced this fact-checking plan, it wasn’t a big leap for them to begin worrying the same thing would happen on a far grander scale, with Facebook simply labeling all right-wing opinions and websites fake.
Some of this fear is exaggerated, I think, but it’s not entirely unfounded. As a private business, Facebook can ultimately do what it likes, argues Mollie Hemingway at The Federalist in a reasonable expression of this concern. Still, she adds, there is a real danger that “‘fake news’…will morph merely into ‘news I don’t like.'”
The question then becomes how the right should respond. When Facebook’s announcement arrived, my first reaction was to wonder whether this would lead to attempted creation of a right-wing alternative to the social networking giant.
Recall, there was once a lot of interest is this sort of thing. In fact, my first job out of college was with CampusReform.org, which today functions as a college news site but originally was conceived as a social network for organizing student activism with functionality that would make it more appealing to young conservatives and libertarians than Facebook.
Suffice it to say, the networking thing never took off — and neither did all the other ideologically-based social networks the conservative and liberty movements tried to get going over the years. There was the Tea Party Community in 2013. ReaganBook in 2014. Gab and Codias this year. And no doubt dozens more I’ve never heard of because, just like these would-be Facebook alternatives, they never got off the ground and never will.
That history hasn’t prevented suggestions of another “Facebook for conservatives” from showing up in response to Facebook’s fact-check plan. “It’s time find alternative facebook as arm of Democratic Socialist Party. SERIOUSLY THEY GOING TELL US FAKE NEWS!!” said one representative tweet among many.
I get the impulse — I really do — but the hard truth is this will not work.
No ideological network will hit critical mass, mostly because people use Facebook for a lot more than sharing news stories and talking about politics. There’s a lot of that, yes, but activists are deceiving themselves if they sincerely think Facebook users are going to abandon interactions with and photo updates from all their friends and family just to get more Breitbart posts in their social media feeds. No one loves Breitbart more than pictures of their grandchildren.
But honestly, people on the right who are worried about Facebook censorship should be glad a conservative alternative network won’t work. If the goal is to actually spread a political viewpoint and push for its mainstream acceptance, self-isolation in an ideological ghetto will hurt, not help, that cause. It will deepen the divide between right and left and foster political echo chambers that make civil conversation even more difficult than it already is.
I can’t offer a solution proposal nearly so neat, quick, and satisfying as a “Facebook for conservatives” might sound. I only know that isn’t the answer — and that Facebook is still a business, more likely to respond to complaints from its customers than its miniature rivals.