The truth is dead, and Facebook killed it.
That’s not nearly as much of an exaggeration as you might wish. Consider that the social media colossus was the platform of choice for a video that blazed across the internet last week, purporting to depict a drunken Nancy Pelosi giving a speech.
The clip was pretty basic, as dirty tricks go. Pelosi’s voice was made to sound slurred simply by slowing the video and changing the pitch — none of the so-called “deepfake” next-generation technology that experts say will soon render digital counterfeits indistinguishable from real videos.
But, given that that technology is now breathing down our necks, Facebook’s mishandling of this relatively low-tech hoax did not inspire confidence. You see, where YouTube quickly took the clip down, Facebook refused. Yes, Twitter did, too, but it’s Facebook, as the largest social media company on the planet, whose behavior is uniquely ominous.
Rather than remove the video, it appended a note inviting would-be viewers to visit fact-checking sites where it has been debunked. This was apparently Facebook’s way of having its proverbial cake and eating it, too. In so doing, it ducks the great responsibility that comes with its great power.
Sadly, this isn’t the first time we’ve seen evidence of the company’s spinal deficiencies. As reported in 2018 by the Columbia Journalism Review, among others, its willingness to serve as a conduit of misinformation has been linked to tribalistic violence and even death in places like Sri Lanka, Libya, Myanmar and India.
Of course, the public could end the misinformation crisis in a heartbeat. Just stop looking for news on Facebook. Connect with friends, argue politics, talk sports, yes, yes and yes. But get your news from actual, reputable news organizations and, if you must share a story or video of some news event, make sure it originates with, or has been vetted by, one of them.
Boom. Problem solved.
Except that human nature doesn’t work that way, does it? So often, people who think they want truth just want validation, something the real news doesn’t always supply. But a fake video always will.
So Facebook’s idea that it can stand to the side and accept no responsibility is a naive delusion at best, a craven abdication at worst. The company is simply too big, its reach too great, the potential for harm too vast, for this to continue. There are three possible scenarios here:
1. The courts step in. As a public figure, Pelosi is pretty much fair game for anything anyone says, but how long before a private citizen gets slimed and sees no reason to quietly take it? Facebook would seem to be a defamation suit waiting to happen.
2. The government steps in. Any legislative remedy would likely be overly broad. But at some point, lawmakers may feel they have no choice.
3. Facebook grows up.
The company seems to want to be a space where the Nazi stands equal with the Holocaust survivor. It seems to feel that assigning value to either betrays some vague, utopian ideal, some Jeffersonian spirit of freewheeling debate. So instead, it embraces this moral pusillanimity, the same kind of “both sides” imbecility where newscasters call the Ku Klux Klan “racially insensitive.”
This refusal to judge is a dangerous luxury at a time when reality is under siege and lies have become weapons of mass destruction. So Facebook has a decision to make. It has a side to choose.
Because in a war for truth, there are no conscientious objectors.
Leonard Pitts is a columnist for The Miami Herald.