As scandal-hit Zuckerberg prepares to face a grilling in the US Senate, what counts as fact in a world of fake news?


Mark Zuckerberg (centre) in Capitol Hill, Washington DC, yesterday. He is testifying before two Congressional hearings this week regarding Facebook allowing third-party applications to collect the data of its users without their permission. Michael Reynolds / EPA

Facebook’s founder is testifying before US legislators but it is doubtful the real questions will be asked or answered: do most people have an inherent problem with facts? Should Facebook, the world’s largest social network, be obligated to actively promote “factfulness” along with conversation?

These are timely questions. Factfulness is the title of the late Swedish global health professor Hans Rosling’s book on the undisputed but relatively little known realities of our world and the fact that most people don’t pay much heed to the facts. Instead, they make wrongful assumptions and argue in that vein.

The book, coincidentally published just the week before Mark Zuckerberg’s date with US senators and representatives, challenges the misconceptions that lead people to think and behave the way they do, banding together in adversarial us-versus-them groups.

For example, says Rosling, hardly anywhere is there recognition that “Saudi Arabian society has made amazing progress” long before the current phase of social and economic reform. But child deaths per 1,000 in Saudi Arabia had dropped from 242 to 35 in 33 years, he points out, adding: “That’s way faster than Sweden. We took 77 years to achieve the same improvement.”

Rosling addresses the prevailing tendency in the West to think the majority of people in the rest of the world are starving, with offspring who either die at birth or survive miserably unschooled and unvaccinated. In actuality, “the vast majority of people are spread out in the middle…with the same range of standards of living as people had in western Europe and North America in the 1950s”.

Add to that the documented truth that 88 per cent of the world’s children are vaccinated against disease and that deaths of 4.2 million babies last year are down from 14.4 million in 1950 and it’s clear factfulness can dispel corrosive negativity.

Rosling lists 10 human instincts that distort people’s perspective, including those that veer towards negativity, fear and blame. Perhaps one of the strongest and most divisive is the gap instinct. Rosling says it “deliberately creates gaps or differences between groups of people. It makes us imagine division where there is just a smooth range, difference where there is convergence, and conflict where there is agreement.

“It is the first instinct on our list because it’s so common and distorts the data so fundamentally. If you look at the news or click on a lobby group’s website this evening, you will probably notice stories about conflict between two groups, or phrases like ‘the increasing gap’.”

Indeed, we see the gap instinct playing out constantly on Facebook, albeit in a changing key. Does this mean Facebook is no more than a globally connected digital simulacrum of the real world with what Rosling calls “its massive ignorance…persistent, widespread…systematic”? Is this what Mr Zuckerberg meant when he recently admitted to Vox’s Ezra Klein that Facebook’s problem was that “folks are saying stuff that may be wrong, but they mean it, they think they’re speaking their truth and do you really want to shut them down for doing that?”If so, what is to be done? Surely the gap instinct is too powerful — and too human a failing — to be easily overcome? As Rosling points out: “Human beings have a strong dramatic instinct towards binary thinking, a basic urge to divide things into two distinct groups, with nothing but an empty gap in between. We love to dichotomise. Good versus bad. Heroes versus villains. My country versus the rest.”

Ahead of Mr Zuckerberg’s testimony to the US Senate commerce and judiciary committees and the house energy and commerce committee, there were indications some legislators were starting to understand the scale of the problem. Republican senator John Neely Kennedy said his “biggest worry” was the problems were “too big for Facebook to fix and that’s the frightening part”. And John Thune, also a Republican senator, said he was interested in Mr Zuckerberg’s “vision for the responsibility Facebook plans to take for what happens on its platform, how it will protect users’ data and how it intends to proactively stop harmful conduct.”

But can Facebook really “stop harmful conduct”? Can Mr Zuckerberg come up with clever code that ends divisive social media exchanges?

He has to. For we need factfulness — relentless, constant, systematic, persistent and widespread factfulness. In a world where more than three billion people are now using the internet, according to the United Nations agency that oversees international communication, it is no longer enough to dole out the facts in schools, universities, through newspapers of record and government reports. Most people, young and old, will have access to disparate and insistent online voices speaking, as Mr Zuckerberg called it, “their truth”.

In that case, what is needed is factfulness, which is the truth, statistically verifiable, unquestionably accurate and available everywhere.