Mark Zuckerberg just spent two days in marathon question-and-answer sessions on Capitol Hill in Washington, tackling complex topics like privacy, data protection and election security.
Facebook’s CEO vowed to protect election integrity, use artificial intelligence to fight off fake news and hoaxes, and hire 10,000 more content moderators to handle the flood of disinformation.
“The most important thing that I care about right now is making sure that no one interferes in the various 2018 elections around the world,” Zuckerberg said during a hearing before the Senate on Tuesday.
In that session and Wednesday’s appearance before members of the House of Representatives, Zuckerberg answered a combined total of roughly 600 questions during nearly 10 hours of testimony.
Yet he never mentioned memes.
The omission is glaring because memes, which are often associated with jokes — like the American Chopper guys yelling or a distracted boyfriend — are also a significant driver of misinformation on Facebook. They’re designed to go viral, giving them a far better chance of reaching your newsfeed thanks to a random like or share. That memes never came up, on either side, during the hearings speaks to the fact that everyone is missing the real problem.
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“If you look at what the Russian troll factory was doing, a lot of it was not paid posts,” said Ben Nimmo, a defense and international security analyst with the Atlantic Council‘s Digital Forensic Research Lab. “If Facebook is only concentrating on that, then it’s missing that substantial part of the equation.”
Facebook, Reddit and Twitter are still struggling to fight off trolls and election interference that take advantage of the social networks. Posts from Russian troll factory the Internet Research Agency spread political chaos by stirring up emotions around divisive issues. Social networks have tried to stamp out foreign influence campaigns, but trolls have proved to be resilient, and many members of Congress referenced the threat fake news poses to this year’s midterm elections.
As jokes, memes aren’t meant to be believed. Nobody sees a post of pizza in the water captioned “Italian Navy” and actually takes it literally (we hope). Yet the medium has evolved into poorly Photoshopped pictures that do threaten to trip up people. One example was an image of Barack Obama giving the Presidential Medal of Freedom to various accused sex offenders — the fact-finding website Snopes had to debunk it.
“I don’t know how we got here,” said Kyle Stratis, a moderator of the Meme Economy subreddit, and co-creator of the Danq Exchange. “I think people see the power that these things have to be shared, and you go from satire to something that’s way more sinister because it fools more people.”
During earlier congressional hearings with Facebook, last November, House representatives showed several posts from Russian trolls that had appeared on the social network — but none of them were articles. They were all memes. The most infamous post showed Hillary Clinton’s head Photoshopped onto the body of Satan as the devil prepared to mix it up in a boxing match with Jesus Christ. I’m not making this up.
Though these fixes apply to news stories, they’ve never addressed disinformation coming from memes. It wasn’t until March 29 that Facebook announced it was expanding its fact-checking program to include