The mainstream news media’s missteps during the 2016 election likely only worsened historically low trust levels among both the public and high-profile politicians like President-elect Donald Trump, who has been vocal in his suspicions that the media was biased against him during the campaign.
As the news media continues to grapple with these problems, Facebook finds itself in a unique position. Already one of the largest information hubs in the world — an estimated 44 percent of Americans get their news on the site — it now stands to become the most influential.
Or it may be where they get their fake news, as the social media giant has been the subject of controversy over the last year for publishing and promoting fabricated, inaccurate and biased information sometimes masquerading as journalism.
One such story found in the "Trending News" section of Facebook in September from fictional WTOE 5 News claimed that Pope Francis had endorsed Trump. Another from the fake Denver Guardian, published just days before the election, claimed that an FBI agent connected to leaks of Clinton’s emails was involved in a murder-suicide.
Despite the controversy Facebook faces, it stands to gain prominence as the news industry struggles to stay relevant to Americans who no longer trust it, some experts argue.
“The decline of newspapers in physical form and their passing on to the internet puts them on all fours with the vast flows of information, fantasy, leaks, conspiracy theories, expressions of benevolence and hatred,” the Financial Times’ John Lloyd wrote.
It’s not just that Facebook could replace traditional media outlets as many Americans’ daily source of information — the social network has proven it’s capable of manipulating its users as it sees fit based on what content it promotes.
Although founder Mark Zuckerberg stated publicly following the election that the idea of Facebook’s content influencing its users was “pretty crazy,” that’s precisely what the site did in 2012.
It was revealed in 2014 that Facebook experimented on randomly selected users for one week in January 2012. The users were shown positive or negative content consistently and their emotional states seemed to correlate accordingly — those who saw happier content reflected happiness in their posts, while those shown negative content were more downbeat.
This raises the question: If Facebook could influence its users’ emotions, could its promotion of certain information influence an election?
The short answer is probably. As the Columbia Journalism Review put it recently, “Facebook has helped create an environment where perception can matter more than truth.”
Many of Facebook’s critics argue that the site’s promotion of political conspiracy theories and fake news, as well as a proliferation of “hyperpartisan” pages helping to legitimize false content, heavily influenced the outcome of the election.
As Facebook continues to examine its news algorithm — which currently operates without human intervention — experts say media literacy will become more important. Going forward, Americans will not only have to consider the sources of the information they gather, but how that information found its way to them in the first place, further muddying the waters of distrust in journalism and the media generally.
“The company’s business model, algorithms and policies entrench echo chambers and fuel the spread of misinformation,” University of North Carolina professor Zeynep Tufekci wrote in a New York Times op-ed. “When Facebook is discussed in tomorrow’s history books, it will probably not be about its quarterly earnings reports and stock options.”
How intensely Facebook is viewed as a source of information depends on the course of American journalism over the next four years and how it handles a Trump presidency. Following Trump's victory on Election Day, many Americans were caught by surprise, but none were as shocked as mainstream news media outlets who had predicted a virtual landslide for democratic challenger Hillary Clinton.
The New York Times, utilizing an interactive needle gauge to illustrate election predictions, gave Clinton an 84 percent chance of victory on Election Day.
In less than 24 hours, when Trump had won, the Times was posting headlines asking, “How did the media — how did we — get this wrong?”
The Washington Post called coverage of the election “media malpractice 2016.”
“If the news media failed to present a reality-based political scenario, then it failed in performing its most fundamental function,” Jim Rutenberg wrote in an election follow-up column for the New York Times. “It was clear that something was fundamentally broken in journalism.”