Many Americans have spent months stewing about "fake news" and how social media can pump falsehoods and mean-spirited myths into everyday life. Yet the giants of modern information dissemination — Facebook, Google, YouTube and Twitter, for starters — were slow to address and, in Facebook's case, downright dismissive of the idea that they were to blame for mushrooming fictitious or inflammatory posts.
They did so even as it became clear some posts were part of covert Russian attempts to divide Americans in the 2016 presidential campaign and in other political skirmishes.
It was only Sept. 30, while marking the end of Yom Kippur, the Jewish holy day of atonement, that Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg apologized for how his company was used: "For the ways my work was used to divide people rather than bring us together, I ask for forgiveness and I will work to do better," he wrote on Facebook.
The next night, the deadliest mass shooting in modern U.S. history happened in Las Vegas, and once again, users of the tech platforms were sharing untruths and malign speculation. A reporter for The New York Times documented how Facebook's Trending Stories highlighted news from Sputnik, a Russian propaganda site, and featured a false post asserting the FBI blamed the slaughter on Muslim terrorists.
A "Las Vegas Shooting/Massacre" Facebook group sprung up and quickly grew to more than 5,000 members; it was run by Jonathan Lee Riches, a serial harasser with a criminal background and a history of farcical lawsuits, as The Atlantic pointed out.
All of this raises some doubt about whether Google and Facebook — among the richest and most successful companies in global history — can create foolproof algorithms that instantly evaluate what content is worth promoting and what content is best ignored in a time of crisis.
It also raises some questions about whether the two companies, which have spent vast sums on artificial-intelligence research, can develop reliable, smart AI to protect the public from being manipulated and incited.
Ultimately, news literacy matters. Everyone needs to develop the tools for evaluating what content is credible, what is junk and what absolutely needs confirmation before being shared. Consider the source. Check the URL. See who else is reporting it. Still unsure? Ask a friend — or verify it online. The internet is still good for that.
REPRINTED FROM THE JACKSONVILLE DAILY NEWS