For months, the headlines have been thumbs-down -- way down -- for Facebook.
Its historic stock market plunge followed an epic privacy breach, misinformation campaigns that skewed our last election, bad actors fomenting violence, and evidence that teens are fleeing the social networking behemoth.
But there could be an unexpected silver lining in this avalanche of bad news. It can be used to make a compelling case to younger audiences about trustworthy information sources, and make them more discerning than older generations about what’s real and fake on the internet.
News-consumption habits form early, and the post-millennials are still up for grabs as news consumers. Legitimate news organizations, responsible corporate citizens and concerned parents and educators have an opportunity to influence the long game in protecting our democracy by teaching this generation about reputable sources of information.
It’s better for everyone if teens aren’t exposed to malicious, fake content posing as news on Facebook. But even if Facebook doesn’t make changes to its content rules, teenagers are abandoning the site, according to a study from the Pew Research Center. Just 51 percent of Americans aged 13 to 17 said they use Facebook -- down from the 71 percent in Pew’s previous study in 2015. They are likely leaving because their parents and grandparents are on it. They prefer YouTube, Instagram (also owned by Facebook) or Snapchat.
While media-savvy teens are certainly aware that bad information takes root and spreads socially, it’s just as important that they learn why. If your local newspaper published the views of those who deny the Holocaust or claim mass shootings like Sandy Hook were staged, those views would be put into proper context as untrue conspiracies. News companies have a vested interest in the truth. That credibility is what eventually gets monetized.
Social media companies, however, have a vested interest in growing users and engagement, which can be sold to advertisers. Truth, accuracy and quality have not entered this equation. This is why malicious liars, bigots and harassers can find a megaphone and an audience of millions on social media sites.
Facebook’s inability, or unwillingness, to prevent its massive platform from being used for nefarious purposes has been on display for some time. But Zuckerberg is hardly alone in this calculation. Twitter hasn’t been serious about tackling its Nazi problem; YouTube has been a safe haven for fake and malicious content.
These tech giants are not invested in our country’s democratic values -- they care about their bottom line. This differentiation must be explained as part of every middle school and high school English lesson on sources of information.
And legitimate news organizations, who have relied on Facebook for traffic, should build younger audiences on Instagram and YouTube with more savvy. Take, for instance, the top news publishers on Instagram. The New York Times has 4 million subscribers and its feed heavily features compelling photography that plays well on the visual site. The Fox News feed, with half as many subscribers as the Times, features quotes that promote and praise the current administration’s policies.
Teenagers should be shown the differences in motive and approach to news.
Local media, in particular, can benefit from greater exposure through distribution apps like Apple News, the built-in news app on iOS, which aggregates and curates stories from a variety of third-party sources. Parents can make sure the news alerts on their teens’ phones are turned on -- even if they are just glancing at the headlines of the day.
In addition, corporations can be pressured not to run ads with brokers of misinformation, bigotry and harassment, who say vile, repulsive things about murdered children and their grieving parents. We can demand better, as consumers and citizens.
As long as social media sites remain “neutral” on truth and lies, we should cheer when our children dump them.