Friday, November 11, 2016

Did you hear the one about ...

Let's have a look at how far out of the gate a lie can get while the truth is still fumbling to get its pants on:

Facebook’s struggles with ‘fake news’ underscore the urgent need for a new social media legal framework, experts warn.

“It’s an enormous problem,” Keith Altman, a lawyer at 1-800 Law Firm, told FoxNews.com. “It’s the distribution, the infrastructure of these sites that allow the misinformation to be disseminated.”

So much bullshit, so little time! From a discourse analysis perspective, we might wonder about correctness conditions: Whom* does "concern" have to be "raised" among for the claim to fit in a standard subject-verb-object news hed? "Thousands flee Godzilla" or "Quake kills hundreds" wouldn't require that kind of analysis. Nor would "Series thrills Cubs fans," but "Series brings joy" is a different matter. All of a sudden, you need another object ("among Cubs fans") to avoid violating an objectivity norm. Fox** isn't telling us where it stands with regard to Facebook's liberal skulduggery, but it is telling us how we can tell where it stands.

Like the lede, the inside hed goes to that point more directly:
That's a nice bit of question-begging that helps the lie stay ahead of the game. Note the advance over Friday morning's take on the story:

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg defended the social media network’s news algorithm Thursday after accusations that the company allowed “fake news” to tilt the election.

“Personally I think the idea that fake news on Facebook—of which it’s a very small amount of the content—influenced the election in any way is a pretty crazy idea,” Zuckerberg said at conference in Half Moon Bay, Calif.

As the day wears on and the story shifts from a generic "foxnews.com" credit to a staff byline, we've gone from "accusations" of fake news to "Facebook's struggles with 'fake news.'" Nicely played, Fair 'n' Balanced Network!

"Experts say" is another standard objectivity routine. Attributing the opinion displaces its evaluative function from the news organization to the source; if the referee is looking, Fox still has the pivot foot planted on the floor. It'd be rude -- though it's (ahem) kind of a standard thing to teach in journalism classes --to ask: How many experts, and how expert are they in what? Back to the videotape with the afternoon version as it recaps the story-in-progress:

Earlier this week Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg defended the social media network’s news algorithm against allegations that the company allowed ‘fake news’ to tilt the election.

This is a bit of a wait-WUT?: You mean the libruls stacked the deck for Trump? Before long, though, we get to the real point:

... Facebook’s Trending Topics fell prey to some high-profile fake stories after the social network implemented an algorithmic feed this summer. These included a false article that Fox News had fired anchor Megyn Kelly and a hoax article about the Sept.11 attacks.  On another occasion a seemingly innocent hashtag that appeared in Trending Topics linked to an inappropriate video.

And that has ... the square root of exactly what to do with tilting the election?

While these incidents were clearly embarrassing for Facebook, social media companies are protected by Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, which says that “no provider or user of an interactive computer service shall be treated as the publisher or speaker of any information provided by another information content provider."

OK, nothing. Back to the experts*** again:

... Altman, however, says the “unfettered” nature of social media sites such as Facebook, where content can be shared with vast numbers of people, necessitates a new legal framework.

“I think that [Section] 230 needs to be looked at and maybe more clearly defined,” Altman told FoxNews.com. “A better framework and accountability needs to be implemented to cause these companies to act responsibly.”

He's as welcome to his opinion as anyone who consults with 1-800-Law-Firm, but the reasonable onlooker is entitled to a question here: Section 230 basically treats Facebook like the phone company. If I call you for a date and you falsely claim to be washing your hair, I can't sue the phone company because of your perfidy. If someone messes with the levers of democracy by making up a bogus story about who fired whom from Fox News, Facebook isn't at fault if someone shares it. Fox News isn't liable when commenters take to an Obama story and demand that  someone take out -- oh, how was that phrased? -- "the monkey commander-in-thief." You'd think someone at Fox would have the courtesy to heave a sigh of relief.

If the question is whether made-up news circulating on Facebook -- let's stipulate, made-up news about something more electorally substantive than who fired whom at Fox -- can be restricted because Fox wants you to worry about its potential impact on the Trump campaign, the answer is pretty simple: No. Or, in more detail: Is there some part of "no law abridging freedom of speech, or of the press" that went right by you? It doesn't matter that content can be shared with "vast numbers of people." Radio did that a century ago, and the First Amendment has managed to soldier on.

That doesn't mean that there are no sanctions on lies told with the intent of influencing elections, but that's a specific instance of the broader principle that there are sanctions on false, defamatory, damaging speech. Barry Goldwater won his case against Ralph Ginzburg over "The Unconscious of a Conservative" even under the Sullivan "actual malice" standard: knowledge of probable falsity or reckless disregard of possible falsity.

Might that idea extend to a reporter who -- just blue-skying here, mind you -- falsely claimed a week before a presidential election that a candidate was "likely" to be indicted and that the FBI had determined her email server had been hacked by "five foreign intelligence agencies"? Not being a lawyer, I wouldn't want to guess. But it does suggest why Fox is much more interested in talking about other people's alleged problems with made-up stories.

* Good old "whom"!
** This was the afternoon's No. 3 story, in case you're scoring along at home with a rank-ordered list of international and national events.
***Just to set your mind at ease, one other source in the story does seem to think there's a "huge problem."

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