The One Essential Skill You Need In The Facebook Era

Published in Online Spin, November 18, 2016.

“If I were to run, I’d run as a Republican. They’re the dumbest group of voters in the country… I could lie and they’d still eat it up. I bet my numbers would be terrific,” said Donald Trump in a 1998 People magazine interview. Except, of course, he didn’t.

Don’t get me wrong -- he's said plenty of things that would fit in a similar bucket of “general disdain for large groups of Americans.” But this particular bit of general disdainery was completely fabricated.

And yet, several of my friends -- people I consider generally intelligent -- were quick to share it on Facebook. Why?

If you’re thinking it’s because Democrats are too dumb to tell real news from fake, not so fast. Republicans often find themselves in the same boat.

Paul Horner is a professional fake news writer, whose completely made-up story about the Amish committing their vote to Trump got over 134,000 likes on Facebook; his story about Obama signing an executive order to invalidate the election results has over 250,000 likes.

This week, The Washington Post’s Caitlin Dewey interviewed Horner--who isstunned that his work gets accepted as true.

“I think Trump is in the White House because of me. His followers don’t fact-check anything -- they’ll post everything, believe anything. His campaign manager posted my story about a protester getting paid $3,500 as fact. Like, I made that up. I posted a fake ad on Craigslist… I thought they’d fact-check it, and it’d make them look worse. I mean that’s how this always works: Someone posts something I write, then they find out it’s false, then they look like idiots. But Trump supporters -- they just keep running with it! They never fact-check anything!”

This is what we call a bipartisan problem. Both sides of the aisle fall for it, and we all get hurt. And it isn’t gonna be fixed on the supply side -- writers like Horner make too much money from showing Google ads to the millions of suckers who fall for the clickbait.

Maybe the platforms will help. Facebook and Google have just announced that they’re going to crack down on fake news sites. But their measures won’t solve the problem.

“[I]f [AdSense] cracked down, I would try different things,” Horner said. “I have at least 10 sites right now. If they crack down on a couple, I’ll just use others. They could shut down advertising on all my sites, and I think I’d be okay. Plus, Facebook and AdSense make a lot of money from [advertising on fake news sites] for them to just get rid of it. They’d lose a lot of money.”

So Horner’s not going to stop, and Facebook and Google aren’t prepared to fully pull the plug. The only way this can be fixed is on the demand side. That means -- ugh -- educating ourselves.

Fact-checking is the most essential skill we can have in the Facebook era, an era in which algorithms feed us only content that reaffirms our existing beliefs and content creators are rewarded for shocking us as much as possible.

Without fact-checking, arguments become meaningless. Positions become meaningless. Support becomes meaningless. With fact-checking, we can ensure that when we disagree, we disagree on matters of substance, not on garbage we’ve been fed by people looking to earn a quick buck off our eyeballs.

We need this education throughout our entire society: left-wing and right-wing, young, old and everyone in between. It should be taught in schools and promoted in PSAs.

If we want to have a functioning democracy and not a farce built on lies and quicksand, we have no choice. We must fact-check.