Forget Facebook And The Macedonians: Is Google Responsible For the Post-Truth Era?

Published in Online Spin, December 9, 2016.

The ad started showing up in my Facebook feed in the past weeks: “Subscribe to the New York Times,” it said. “Fact-based reporting.”
In our current post-truth era, fact-based is now a unique value proposition.

“Post-truth” was actually the Oxford Dictionaries’ 2016 Word of the Year -- a headline that sounded so much like, “Did you know the word ‘gullible’ isn’t in the dictionary?” I struggled to believe it.

According to Oxford, the term started spiking in use between May and June of this year, going “from being a peripheral term to being a mainstay in political commentary.” So it’s easy to think this is a new phenomenon, especially with the recent mudslinging over fake news and whether it cost Hillary Clinton the election.

“I think Donald Trump is in the White House because of me,” said Paul Horner, in a recent interview with the Washington Post. The 38-year-old Horner is responsible for such falsehoods as the Amish committing their vote to Trump and Obama invalidating the election results through executive order.

Of course, Horner isn’t the only one taking advantage of our propensity to click on shocking headlines that either reinforce our deepest beliefs or satisfy our deepest desires. The town of Veles, in Macedonia, has become a hotspot for fake news, with a group of teenagers generating ad revenues from wildly inaccurate stories about Clinton being indicted in 2017 or the Pope endorsing Trump.

Neither Horner nor the Macedonians would be anywhere without Facebook, the main conduit for discovery of their stories. And so Facebook generally, and Mark Zuckerberg personally, have come under fire. The week of the election, Zuckerberg said just about 1% of Facebook posts have fake news, and the idea that it could influence the outcome was “pretty crazy.” A week later, he backpedaled, outlining in a Facebook post new measures to address the issue, such as stronger detection and third-party verification.

On The Verge, Walt Mossberg says Facebook has no excuse: it “can and should wipe out fake news.” But all of these culprits -- Horner, the Macedonians, even Facebook itself -- are only the latest actors in a long history of systemic disregard for facts. In August 2015, David Webber published in Quartz an interview with Google’s in-house philosopher, Luciano Floridi: “[O]ne of the first search results when you Google ‘What happened to the dinosaurs?’ is a website called Answers in Genesis. It explains that ‘the Bible gives us a framework for explaining dinosaurs in terms of thousands of years of history...’ Luciano Floridi, known as “the Google Philosopher,” thinks that’s fine…. Google has never claimed to deliver the best information. Google’s search algorithm is designed for efficiency: To provide the results users are most likely looking for and to move them on to their next site as quickly as possible.”

A few paragraphs on, Webber delivers the zinger: “In other words, Google’s search engine… is indifferent to truth.”

We should no more stop at Google than at Facebook. Writing in The New Yorker, Nicholas Lemann cites Plato’s cave, Trojan horses and Shakespeare as evidence that this problem has been going on for centuries. But Google is the one who has trained us: trained us to look online for the truth, and believe what we find there.

Should Google and Facebook take responsibility for how people are likely to interpret the content they serve? Absolutely. But we are complicit. It has always been and will always be up to us to exercise discernment and judgment in what we choose to believe.

And that is the scary part. The true culprits… are us.