Thursday, November 10, 2016

Facebook and Fake News

Joshua Benton:
There’s plenty of blame to go around, but the list of actors has to start with Facebook. And for all its wonders — reaching nearly 2 billion people each month, driving more traffic and attention to news than anything else on earth — it’s also become a single point of failure for civic information. Our democracy has a lot of problems, but there are few things that could impact it for the better more than Facebook starting to care — really care — about the truthfulness of the news that its users share and take in.

As BuzzFeed’s Craig Silverman has documented repeatedly — and as anyone who has spent much time on their relatives’ profile pages can probably attest — Facebook has become a sewer of misinformation. Some of it is driven by ideology, but a lot is driven purely by the economic incentive structure Facebook has created: The fake stuff, when it connects with a Facebook user’s preconceived notions or sense of identity, spreads like wildfire. (And it’s a lot cheaper to make than real news.)

One example: I’m from a small town in south Louisiana. The day before the election, I looked at the Facebook page of the current mayor. Among the items he posted there in the final 48 hours of the campaign: Hillary Clinton Calling for Civil War If Trump Is Elected. Pope Francis Shocks World, Endorses Donald Trump for President. Barack Obama Admits He Was Born in Kenya. FBI Agent Who Was Suspected Of Leaking Hillary’s Corruption Is Dead.

These are not legit anti-Hillary stories. (There were plenty of those, to be sure, both on his page and in this election cycle.) These are imaginary, made up, frauds. And yet Facebook has built a platform for the active dispersal of these lies — in part because these lies travel really, really well. (The pope’s “endorsement” has over 868,000 Facebook shares. The Snopes piece noting the story is fake has but 33,000.)
Benton wants Facebook to hire editors who would, among other things, flag fake stories as fake:
Another idea would be to hire a team of journalists and charge them with separating at least the worst of the fake news from the stream. Not the polemics (from either side) that sometimes twist facts like balloon animals — I’m talking about the outright fakery. Stories known to be false could be downweighted in Facebook’s algorithm, and users trying to share them could get a notice telling them that the story is fake. Sites that publish too much fraudulent material could be downweighted further or kicked out entirely.

Would this or other ideas raise freedom of speech or other thorny issues? Sure. This would be easy to screw up — which is I’m sure why Facebook threw up its hands at the pushback to a human-edited Trending section and why it positions itself a neutral connector of its users to content it thinks they will find pleasing. I don’t know what the right solution would be — but I know that getting Mark Zuckerberg to care about the problem is absolutely key to the health of our information ecosystem.
I think something like this has to be done, because I don't think we can survive as a nation if we all come to believe malicious lies about each other.


Shadow said...

My, oh, my. Those headlines could be from the National Enquirer (at least the Enquirer of old). Is that where they come from? The problem is not just with people of ill intent, but with consumers who don't double check what they come across, especially when what they come across sounds a little odd. Each one of those headlines is worthy of a google search just to be sure.

The journalist solution doesn't excite me. The sheer volume of "news" items probably makes this impractical, and certainly costly and time consuming. How would you keep up? I really see no way around people doing their own fact checking on what they come across. It isn't all that hard to do.

G. Verloren said...

How about we make it a serious crime to publish outlandish falsehoods? Yes, there'd obviously need to be allowances for honest mistakes, but that would not be that hard to achieve.

We need to start holding people accountable for spreading blatant lies, because we absolutely cannot rely on the ignorant masses to be willing or able to determine truth from fiction.

We've seen over and over that if left to their own devices, the media will resort to nearly anything if it stands to make them money or serve their interests. We cannot allow these predators to continue to do as they please. There must be consequences for undermining the good of society in the pursuit of naked greed.