A couple of years ago this would have seemed like a bad joke, but today it is a reality: Facebook declares war on memes, as it faces increasing difficulties in defining and combating fake news on its platform, with the added burden of increasing hostility from the Biden administration.
Fake news are not new
Hoaxes or fake news have been part of the digital landscape since the dawn of the modern internet in the 1990s. Suspicious pages asking for our bank account in exchange for miracle cures, “news” sites talking about alien conspiracies, and chain emails that “the owner of Hotmail was going to turn the service into a paywall” unless you forwarded that same email to 20 of your contacts have all been part of folklore; but they have also generated damage.
The reach of fake news and its damaging potential multiplied with the consolidation of social networks, which facilitated the viralization of content and allow anyone to distribute messages to millions of users around the world almost instantaneously and (in many cases) anonymously.
So, yes, fake news do exist. Yes, they must be detected, denounced and combated. Yes, by censoring them, social networks are complying with the spirit of Section 230, which allows them to moderate harmful content without losing their classification as public forums. The problem is that it is not easy to define what is or is not fake news.
What is fake news?
At first glance it seems easy to define fake news as “a piece of information that is not true”; a lie, then. However, when we bring the definition down to real life, things become much more complicated. In this case, two complications arise: The need to define what is “news” and what is “false.”
Regarding the definition of what constitutes news, the complications multiply when defining whether parodies and comedy can qualify as news. Is a meme news and therefore should it be subject to the same level of scrutiny as a story by a journalist? Should a page dedicated to parodies qualify as a news site and be subject to the same kind of controls?
These are precisely the questions at the heart of the controversy between Facebook and the parody site The Babylon Bee, which has complained (and rightly so) that the social network punishes as fake news what are obvious parodies. Facebook’s response? “Satire can be difficult for our systems to identify”.
Now, regarding the definition of what constitutes something “fake” opens up a whole world of complications.
There are specific facts whose falsity or veracity is easy to prove; for example, the fact that President Joe Biden was sworn in on January 20, 2021; consequently, if someone claims that Biden was not sworn in, that is undoubtedly “fake news.” The problem arises when an event or analysis involves stating controversial views, which are potentially incorrect, but not necessarily false.
An example of this phenomenon is the publications regarding COVID-19 treatments and vaccines, which by their very experimental nature lend themselves to contradictory information, but which is not necessarily fake news. A publication highlighting the dangers of vaccination may be yellow, in bad taste or in bad faith, but it is not necessarily false.
The distinction becomes even more blurred in the case of opinion pieces: who can say with certainty that an opinion is “fake”? even if a columnist claims that world government is controlled by gender-fluid lizard men with patriarchal agendas, we can respond that his opinion is absurd and wrong, but can we really dismiss it as “fake news”? I think not, at least not with the certainty that we would dismiss anyone who claimed that Biden was not sworn in on January 20, 2021.
This is where the key point comes in regarding the information censorship practices of social networks. More and more systematically, Facebook and its competitors are censoring not only obviously false and fraudulent news, but also parody and opinion pieces that, I repeat, may be yellowish or in bad taste, but are not necessarily fake news.
Facebook declares war on memes
On July 12, this war of Facebook and its partners in the verification of fake news reached a new level of absurdity: Facebook qualified as fake news a meme, backed by the denial article signed by Marco Martínez Chacón, Associated Press journalist.
The meme in question arose after Mexican President López Obrador announced that his government will create a new company in charge of delivering liquefied gas, called Gas bienestar.
This aroused the justified derision of Mexicans, fed up with the whims of the president who has turned the Army into a multi-purpose force in charge of building railroads and airports, as well as delivering medicines, textbooks and public security (through the National Guard).
That is why the meme that shows a National Guard van “adapted” to deliver liquefied gas went viral, in an obvious parody of how the Mexican government is saturating the Armed Forces with absurd jobs.
It’s a joke, but Facebook considered it fake news, based on the AP, which “clarifies” that the image in question “was published on November 24, 2019 on the website of the Mexican newspaper Excélsior and this one shows the same vehicle while transporting NG officers, not gas tanks and also does not show the alleged logo.” Thank you, Captain Obvious.
The consequences of censorship
The seriousness of the case is that the effects of a rating as fake news go far beyond putting a warning on the image. If Facebook considers that you have shared fake news on your page or profile, it punishes you by drastically reducing the reach of your content, limiting your use of the platform and even deleting your account. Such punishments are more than justified for those who defraud with truly fake news, but applying them to “fake” memes is insane.
Worse: Facebook continues to fail to establish easily accessible systems for appealing fake news decisions, leaving millions of users at the mercy of capricious reviews. One can only wonder: will the next round of denials by the Associated Press be launched against SpongeBob memes, since sea sponges can’t make hamburgers, or against those of the optimistic puppy in the middle of a burning room, claiming it’s false that canines can drink coffee and stay calm while their apartment is on fire?
The result of this madness will be an inert and boring social media ecosystem, whose contents will resemble more the tone of a press release and less that of a public forum, which is what they are supposed to be.
And this process is not the sole fault of the malice or incompetence of social network executives, but of the increasing hostility and regulatory voracity of the American government, exemplified on July 17, when President Biden noted that Facebook is “killing people” by not further censoring content critical of COVID-19 vaccines.
Social networks are in a very complicated position, between the growth of their influence, government pressures and the weight of their own internal agendas. The future of the Internet as a means of communication will depend to a large extent on how they navigate it. We cannot predict how it will end, but one thing is clear: if Facebook declares war on memes, we will all lose out.