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What are Facebook and other social media doing about Donald Trump?

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The US woke up on Friday to the news that Donald Trump was a full 20 percentage points ahead of Ted Cruz, his nearest rival, for the Republican nomination, and a good 16 percentage points higher than America’s top political analysts thought he would be.

Running on a platform of “making America great again”, his campaign has been noteworthy for Trump’s egregious widespread insults and total fabrications, on a gargantuan scale. The most recent of which was him claiming to have seen “thousands of Muslims” dancing in the streets of New Jersey after 9/11. No evidence exists of this, because it never happened.

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Almost as disturbing to the media as the fact that you can build a successful campaign on fantasy has been the lack of spent advertising dollars.

In fascinating figures released by NBC News , Donald Trump has so far spent a mere $21,7000 on broadcast advertising, compared to the eye-watering $28.9m spent by Jeb Bush, currently languishing at 3% of the poll compared with Trump’s 36%. Trump is allowing the evolved ecology of TV coverage and the new power of the social web do the work for him, live tweeting along the way.

The Trump campaign has so far become as absorbing and troubling for media critics as it has for his rivals. As NYU Professor and media critic Jay Rosen put it, “untangling the Möbius strip of Trump coverage” feeds the campaign itself. Media theorist Douglas Rushkoff wrote that he was re-evaluating his initial belief that the internet would deliver its own truth serum: “On the internet, information streams can be isolated, almost meaninglessly decontextualised triggers – or, worse, as elements in a feed algorithmically configured by a social media platform to keep users clicking and spreading.” Rushkoff hits on something here, which social platforms and search engines are themselves struggling with: should you privilege facts over feelings?

In the past few weeks I have travelled around America, east coast, west coast and parts in between, sitting in different rooms listening to technologists and journalists chew over how to make information on the internet, and specifically on social platforms deliver “higher quality news and information”. In one room a senior executive at a social media company said that serving the stakeholders of “users and Wall Street” would force “better quality information” to be highlighted. This is patently not true. Wall Street only cares about higher revenues and users like to be entertained even more than they like to be informed. This is the tabloid dilemma writ large. A well respected journalist and chief executive of a Pulitzer winning news site made the point at another meeting that, despite consistently and meticulously producing original reporting on important issues relevant to a wide range of people, his organisation’s work was never favoured by search or social platforms over more eye-catching but erroneous content.

Google is investing in tools to help bring more facts to the fore and backing projects to build “trust in media”, Facebook and Twitter talk openly about wanting to promote higher quality information through better curation or algorithms. However the point Rushkoff makes is the right one: the quest for “sharing”, “likes” and opinion favours feelings over facts every time. Digitally native outlets themselves fashion headlines of the “you’ll never guess …” nature to engage Generation Swipe Left (or millennials as they are more often known).

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The question then that we ought to be asking is: “What is Facebook (or your social platform of choice) going to do about Donald Trump?”. When it is possible to remove all traces of a campaign claim which is completely untrue, and demonstrably so, by building verifiability into the algorithm, will social platforms and search engines go ahead and do it? It is the same question that Arthur Brisbane, the former public editor of the New York Times, wrote in a column asking if journalists ought to be “truth vigilantes”. What he meant was, should reporters report something even if they know it to be false? Brisbane was rather taken apart by his audience, who were sure journalists ought to be truth vigilantes. However, the new layer of emotion and engagement, empathy and feeling that we are now invited to apply to information by the social web actually relegates complexity and truth below feelings and opinion. These are not societal constructs either, but rather commercial. Embedding material in the social web, or creating a virtual reality presentation of it, or a comedy show around it, creates a new relationship with information, more vivid and meaningful than a plain account of the event.

The liberals can relax about Trump for now, as there is not yet any real danger of him being elected president. The questions raised by the mechanics of his campaign, however, and what it means for the future of news, are going to be with us for some time to come.

guardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media 2015

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