Facebook and Google need to do more to crack down on the proliferation of fake news stories, outgoing Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid said Monday.
“Maybe it is a slippery slope, but let’s start going down the slope. Right now we’ve done nothing,” the Nevada Democrat said in an interview with The Huffington Post from his office just days before he closes out a 30-year career in the Senate. “Take Facebook for example. They’re doing well and make a lot of dough. But maybe they can forgo a few advertisements and spend a little more time looking at some of the junk that comes out on [their sites].”
In speaking out against the proliferation of fake news, Reid joins a chorus of politicians fearful about the ease with which misinformation has spread and informed voter perceptions. At an unveiling of a portrait to honor Reid’s career last week, former Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton called fake news an “epidemic” with “real world consequences.”
Both she and Reid have firsthand experience. During the campaign a number of conspiracy theories involving Clinton were written by admitted online hucksters and passed around the internet as if they were real articles. One item, which said that Clinton and her associates were operating a pedophile ring out of a pizzeria in Washington, D.C., resulted in a man entering the establishment with an assault rifle and firing several shots in his “investigation” of the fake ring.
Reid’s victimization was a bit different. Back in 2015, when he was badly injured in an accident involving an exercise band, conservative sites began speculating that he had instead been roughed up by mobsters. One even dissected the dimensions of the rooms in his house to determine if an exercise band could have been used.
In criticizing those who plant fake news stories, Reid said, “Don’t take my word for it, don’t take Hillary Clinton’s word for it. How about Pope Francis? Pope Francis said these people who do this are people who, he said it better than I, but he used the word ‘excrement.’ There’s another four-letter word that better describes that. That is what the pope said last week. He said that, in his mind, it’s a sin to do what they’re doing.”
The sophistication of fake news has made it hard to detect in the Internet Age. According to an analysis by Buzzfeed, fake election news stories performed far better than real news stories on social media networks during the presidential campaign’s closing months, including material written by teens in Eastern European countries.
Since the election, Facebook and Google have pledged to take more direct steps to crack down on the spread of fake news over their mediums, as the New York Times reported. But it’s not at all clear how they will go about doing that, with even top-ranking officials openly worrying about having to draw consistent editorial lines that will, undoubtedly, anger certain parties.
Reid’s critics, of course, would accuse the senator himself of engaging in “fake news,” particularly his charge that 2012 Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney hadn’t paid taxes in a decade. Pressed again on Monday on that particular accusation, Reid noted that Romney had released only two years of tax returns, which, he argued, was insufficient for settling the matter. As for his source, he refused to reveal a name, despite this being an exit interview. He did, however, tell HuffPost that the “Bain investor” who first alerted him had direct access to Romney’s returns.
“That’s all I’m going to say,” Reid said.