Months before the presidential election, Facebook decided to lay off its human editorial team and leave decisions about the Trending section almost completely to algorithms.
Almost immediately, the Trending section promoted a false story about Fox News firing anchor Megyn Kelly for being a closet liberal and supporting Hillary Clinton. Though Facebook pledged to do better after that incident, fake news stories continued to pop up in the feed, at least a few about the election specifically.
But Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg said during a conference Thursday that he doesn’t believe those fake stories had any effect on the election.
“To think it influenced the election in any way is a pretty crazy idea,” Zuckerberg said.
Instead, Zuckerberg said the reason Donald Trump was elected is people underestimated the amount of support for the Republican candidate.
“I do think there is a certain profound lack of empathy in asserting that the only reason someone could have voted the way they did is they saw some fake news,” Zuckerberg said. “If you believe that, then I don’t think you have internalized the message the Trump supporters are trying to send in this election.”
Many have criticized Facebook’s promotion of fake news as harmful, since nearly half of Americans get their news off that particular social media platform, according to the Pew Research Center. President Barack Obama addressed the issue while on the campaign trail for Clinton on Monday.
“And people, if they just repeat attacks enough, and outright lies over and over again, as long as it's on Facebook and people can see it, as long as it’s on social media, people start believing it,” Obama said. “And it creates this dust cloud of nonsense.”
Facebook laid off its human editorial team in August, amid claims that the people in charge of sorting the Trending section had purposely filtered out conservative news. The fake story about Kelly was only the start, with other inaccurate stories claiming former President George W. Bush and Obama rigged the 2008 election, Michelle Obama was born a man, cannabis killed cancer and the attacks on 9/11 were a “controlled demolition.” Some of the main sites that Facebook linked to explicitly stated that they were fake or satire, others did not.
Facebook responded to these issues by saying they would continuously improve the algorithm that selects topics to put in Trending.