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Did fake news on Facebook swing the US election?

Its 1.7 billion users were treated to articles about how the Pope backs Trump and Clinton is dying. It's time to accept Facebook is a force in politics.

 

Did you know that the Pope endorsed Donald Trump? Admittedly, there are many reasons you might have missed this particular piece of information, not least the fact it’s not true. How about Fox News anchor Megyn Kelly being sacked for supporting Hillary Clinton? Also false. Yet during the US election fake news spread so widely that even senior politicians regurgitated its main themes: “Go online and put down ‘Hillary Clinton illness’ and take a look at the videos yourself,” the Trump supporter Rudy Giuliani told Fox News in August. He was referring to a long-standing conspiracy theory that she was concealing a diagnosis of Parkinson’s disease.

What drives these online rumour mills? Since the election, a large part of the blame has fallen on Facebook, where the Megyn Kelly rumour trended in August soon after the company sacked its human moderators and replaced them with an algorithm. Simply, fake news exists because it makes money. Between them, Facebook and Google control 64 per cent of the digital advertising market, and it’s possible to make a good living by running a parasitical Facebook page filled with content scraped from other websites. Strongly partisan political content is particularly well suited to this model. As the former Facebook product designer Bobby Goodlatte put it: “Sadly, [Facebook’s]News Feed optimises for engagement. As we’ve learned in this election, bullshit is highly engaging.”

Trump (and, to a lesser extent, Bernie Sanders) has many fans who are convinced that the mainstream media are biased and corrupt. And, responding to these voters’ desire to read “what the MSM won’t tell you” – often because it wasn’t true – came a legion of chancers intent on making a quick buck. In one case uncovered by BuzzFeed, 100 pro-Trump pages were being run by teenagers in one town in Macedonia; in another example in the New York Times, a 35-year-old man from St Louis was making $22,000 a month by outsourcing content production to a couple in the Philippines.

I chased one source of the Pope news to a website called wtoe5news.com, which sells itself as “Your local news now”. The site itself was a hollow shell. Clicking on the “Weather” tab brought up a video headlined “Jay Pharoah Acts Out a Secret Meeting Between Black Comedians”; under “Community” was Ben Affleck looking sad. The whole site seemed to exist only to surround the Pope story with plausible architecture. Although let’s be realistic: among the 99,000 people who shared it on Facebook, how many clicked through to WTOE5, as opposed to just reading the headline and hitting “Share”? Tucked away on the About page was a disclaimer: “Most articles on wtoe5news.com are satire or pure fantasy.”

Facebook is trying to remove hoax and “satire” sites such as this one; recent changes to its news feed have downgraded them in favour of more established outlets. A more difficult case is something like the American Patriot page, which has more than 500,000 followers and has a grey verified tick, certifying that Facebook has “confirmed this is an authentic page for this business or organisation”. The Patriot’s stories skirt the edge of total bollocks, rather than being flat-out lies. “Christmas lights now banned as ‘security’ threat”, says one. “Everyone Noticed One Thing About Hillary’s Clothes During Her Concession Speech”, says another.

Facebook would argue that its verification mark is no reflection on the quality of stories, just that they are coming from the organisation named on the page. But it’s hard to see American Patriot as a news organisation in the way that the BBC is. Still, is it Facebook’s place to make editorial judgements like that? Mark Zuckerberg says no; he has always maintained that he runs a platform, not a publisher.

And there’s another problem. The sites peddling bullshit on Facebook are disproportionately right-wing. They are a extension of the alternative media – Fox News, talk radio, Breitbart – built by conservatives over two decades to redress what they saw as the liberal bias of the mainstream. If Facebook goes after fake news in a big way, it will disproportionately affect right-wing pages. And if you put that together with a site that is petrified about appearing biased (and has a prominent Trump supporter, ­Peter Thiel, on its board), what happens? A retreat into “objectivity” that actually benefits the right.

Some will say: why all this focus on Facebook when the mainstream media also publish misleading articles? The first reason is the site’s sheer size (1.7 billion users) and reach (44 per cent of us get our news there). Admittedly, the rest of the media are also irritated that Facebook is taking digital advertising dollars that might have replaced their own falling print revenues. They wouldn’t mind it being taken down a peg or two.

On Facebook, there is also far less visibility and accountability. When the Sun and the Mail published a false tale about Jeremy Corbyn “dancing a jig” on Remembrance Sunday, they were forced to remove the stories after an outcry. Crucially, enough people saw the fake news, and knew whom to complain to, for it to be taken down. That process is much harder on the sprawling, decentralised world of social networks.

Facebook is also where politics happens now. It is vital for fundraising – the Trump campaign said it was their single most important source of donations – and its built-in tools for advertisers allow endless A/B testing of messages to find the perfect one that resonates with voters. For those who wondered where Trump’s “ground game” was – his Get Out the Vote operation – there’s a simple answer: Facebook.

As for the Pope, two days before the election, he warned about fear, intolerance and “physical or social walls”. So probably not a huge Trump supporter, then.

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

This article first appeared in the 17 November 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Trump world

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The tale of Battersea power station shows how affordable housing is lost

Initially, the developers promised 636 affordable homes. Now, they have reduced the number to 386. 

It’s the most predictable trick in the big book of property development. A developer signs an agreement with a local council promising to provide a barely acceptable level of barely affordable housing, then slashes these commitments at the first, second and third signs of trouble. It’s happened all over the country, from Hastings to Cumbria. But it happens most often in London, and most recently of all at Battersea power station, the Thames landmark and long-time London ruin which I wrote about in my 2016 book, Up In Smoke: The Failed Dreams of Battersea Power Station. For decades, the power station was one of London’s most popular buildings but now it represents some of the most depressing aspects of the capital’s attempts at regeneration. Almost in shame, the building itself has started to disappear from view behind a curtain of ugly gold-and-glass apartments aimed squarely at the international rich. The Battersea power station development is costing around £9bn. There will be around 4,200 flats, an office for Apple and a new Tube station. But only 386 of the new flats will be considered affordable

What makes the Battersea power station development worse is the developer’s argument for why there are so few affordable homes, which runs something like this. The bottom is falling out of the luxury homes market because too many are being built, which means developers can no longer afford to build the sort of homes that people actually want. It’s yet another sign of the failure of the housing market to provide what is most needed. But it also highlights the delusion of politicians who still seem to believe that property developers are going to provide the answers to one of the most pressing problems in politics.

A Malaysian consortium acquired the power station in 2012 and initially promised to build 517 affordable units, which then rose to 636. This was pretty meagre, but with four developers having already failed to develop the site, it was enough to satisfy Wandsworth council. By the time I wrote Up In Smoke, this had been reduced back to 565 units – around 15 per cent of the total number of new flats. Now the developers want to build only 386 affordable homes – around 9 per cent of the final residential offering, which includes expensive flats bought by the likes of Sting and Bear Grylls. 

The developers say this is because of escalating costs and the technical challenges of restoring the power station – but it’s also the case that the entire Nine Elms area between Battersea and Vauxhall is experiencing a glut of similar property, which is driving down prices. They want to focus instead on paying for the new Northern Line extension that joins the power station to Kennington. The slashing of affordable housing can be done without need for a new planning application or public consultation by using a “deed of variation”. It also means Mayor Sadiq Khan can’t do much more than write to Wandsworth urging the council to reject the new scheme. There’s little chance of that. Conservative Wandsworth has been committed to a developer-led solution to the power station for three decades and in that time has perfected the art of rolling over, despite several excruciating, and occasionally hilarious, disappointments.

The Battersea power station situation also highlights the sophistry developers will use to excuse any decision. When I interviewed Rob Tincknell, the developer’s chief executive, in 2014, he boasted it was the developer’s commitment to paying for the Northern Line extension (NLE) that was allowing the already limited amount of affordable housing to be built in the first place. Without the NLE, he insisted, they would never be able to build this number of affordable units. “The important point to note is that the NLE project allows the development density in the district of Nine Elms to nearly double,” he said. “Therefore, without the NLE the density at Battersea would be about half and even if there was a higher level of affordable, say 30 per cent, it would be a percentage of a lower figure and therefore the city wouldn’t get any more affordable than they do now.”

Now the argument is reversed. Because the developer has to pay for the transport infrastructure, they can’t afford to build as much affordable housing. Smart hey?

It’s not entirely hopeless. Wandsworth may yet reject the plan, while the developers say they hope to restore the missing 250 units at the end of the build.

But I wouldn’t hold your breath.

This is a version of a blog post which originally appeared here.

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