President Joe Biden is understandably sick of bogus COVID-19 information circulating on Facebook.
Most of us are fed up with it.
But Biden’s recent attacks on Facebook, including his accusation that it’s “killing people,” which he walked back slightly on Monday, won’t fix the problem.
There’s a better solution staring him in the face at every news conference.
If Biden wants Americans to get more reliable and trusted information about COVID-19 and vaccines, he should help save local, independent news organizations.
News outlets rose to the challenge of informing communities during the pandemic, despite profound financial troubles. Americans turned en masse to local newspapers for trusted information about the virus, health care, testing and relief programs.
Yet thousands of communities no longer have a local news outlet as newspaper closures and job losses surged in recent years. Many remaining papers are ghosts, with little investment in journalism and absentee owners milking them to death.
No wonder many people turn to social media for news, even though surveys have found they don’t necessarily trust what they find there, or to cable TV channels peddling resentment and distrust.
Americans who primarily get news from social media are less knowledgeable, more likely to get facts wrong about the virus and more likely to have heard a conspiracy theory about the pandemic, Pew Research found last year.
Fortunately only about 18% of Americans “primarily” get news from social media, the same survey found. Facebook is a “regular” source of news for 36% of Americans, and among those who see news there at least rarely, 59% expect it to be largely inaccurate, Pew found in a separate survey.
It’s good that social media outlets are getting pressure from Biden and Congress to better moderate content and end business practices that stifle competition. There’s also extensive research into misinformation and potential improvements underway.
But they need to be realistic. Bad information will always circulate on social media, like a virus that will keep mutating and spreading and never go away.
The only way to provide real, durable protection against this scourge is to immunize people with legitimate news and civic education. That strengthens knowledge, appreciation of facts and resistance to propaganda.
Drugs reduce disease transmission and harm if you’re infected. Getting trusted news, and a healthy diet of factual and locally relevant information, reduces the sharing of garbage and risk of harm if junk appears in your newsfeed.
So keep pushing Facebook to improve, especially since it’s known that a few bad actors can use the site to widely propagate dangerous misinformation and sow division. But don’t expect any site built on user-generated content and sharing to become a fount of reliable news anytime soon.
To fix the knowledge crisis prolonging the pandemic, Biden should address harm digital platforms are causing to the nation’s news and information infrastructure. His recent executive order on competition acknowledged that “too many local newspapers have shuttered or downsized, in part due to the internet platforms’ dominance in advertising markets,” but didn’t include an immediate response.
To start, Biden should urge Congress to hurry up and pass two critical bills to help save news organizations.
The bipartisan Local Journalism Sustainability Act speaks particularly to Biden’s concerns. It would provide tax credits to households that subscribe to local newspapers and to publishers that employ journalists pursuing and sharing truth and facts.
Concerns about junk on Facebook would also be addressed by the Journalism and Competition Preservation Act. It would enable small and large news outlets to negotiate content usage agreements with digital platforms. That would sustain investments in real journalism, and result in a secure flow of real news on social media.
Frustration with misinformation is legitimate and widespread. Pressing Facebook to do better is necessary. But the only real solution is to make sure reliable news remains available, by sustaining America’s system of local, independent news organizations.
Note: This column is excerpted from the Voices For A Free Press newsletter. To receive the free, weekly newsletter with news and commentary about saving America’s local, independent press, subscribe at http://st.news/FreePressNewsletter.