Will expanded live video capabilities solve the social network’s fake news problem?
We’ve been hearing a lot lately about “fake news” and the role it played during the 2016 presidential election.
The increasing accessibility of the web has made it easier for unsavory characters — amateur journalists, conspiracy theorists, hyper-partisan bloggers, and disreputable foreign-based groups among them — to package false information as news, promote it on social media, and watch their unvetted content spread like wildfire.
As such, it’s become harder than ever for readers to sift through the abundance of available information online to determine what’s true, what’s not, and what may possess a kernel of truth distorted to push a particular agenda.
Fake News and Where it Comes From
Fake news comes in several different forms, including:
- Completely fictional stories (“I Was Paid $3500 to Protest Trump’s Rally” and “FBI Agent Suspected in Hillary’s Email Leaks Found Dead in Apparent Murder-Suicide”).
- Highly distorted clickbait.
- Doctored images and memes.
- Repurposed user-generated content presented out of context.
With President Trump intentionally stirring up distrust of mainstream media outlets during his campaign, fake news outlets devoted to the publication of false and misleading stories have flourished.
While it is difficult to quantify the exact impact that unverified online information had on the election’s outcome, it’s worth noting that largely pro-Trump fake stories received more shares, reactions, and comments than the top election stories from major news outlets, according to one BuzzFeed study. The fact that those stories may have persuaded voters to cast their ballots based on fabricated events is hardly trivial.
Facebook: Journalism Watchdog or Social Platform?
Of major concern to many is the role that social media algorithms play in the spread of false information. Social networks like Facebook have come under fire for using algorithms that keep fake news at the top of some users’ feeds, intending to accommodate users’ expressed interests but in reality linking to questionable sources and user-generated content.
Facebook has already implemented a variety of updates meant to combat fake news over the past year. First, there was Gizmodo’s revelation that Facebook intentionally suppressed conservative stories from rising to the top of users’ news feeds, and that human editors played a part in the curation of those feeds. Shortly thereafter, Facebook announced the implementation of a new algorithm prioritizing personal posts from user’s friends over those from brands and news outlets.
In August, Facebook removed its entire trending news team, announcing instead that the platform would rely only on algorithms to report breaking news stories. Within three days, a fake news story about Fox News anchor Megyn Kelly trended for several hours before its removal.
Although Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg went on the record to deny the impact of Facebook-enabled fake news during the election, BuzzFeed and the Washington Post both reported on young “fake news journalists” who intentionally circulated incendiary articles on the platform to make a buck.
Earlier this month, Facebook announced yet another change, this time expanding publishers’ ability to live stream video on the fly. The platform now allows brands and publishers to designate specific journalists as “contributors” who can go live on behalf of the brand. The platform also announced that it will be working with third-party organizations to “promote news literacy both on and off our platform to help people in our community have the information they need to make decisions about which sources to trust.”
What’s the Solution for ‘Fake News’?
So despite Facebook’s efforts, there’s only so much that social platforms can do to prevent unverified information from rising to the top of users’ feeds. It’s simply unrealistic to expect Facebook or Twitter to police the entire web or banish particularly insidious accounts.
“It’s a matter of educating the public and getting them to understand what may be credible and what is less credible,” says Rob Lever, a journalist at AFP.
He described the necessary shift as something similar to the public’s perception of spam 20 years ago. When unsolicited emails first appeared in people’s inboxes, people might have clicked on them in order to take advantage of whatever unbelievable deal or discount was on offer. But over time, we all came to know better. In the same way, we all must become more savvy when it comes to understanding what makes different sources credible.
“It’s not the platform’s fault if fake news does break through on social media,” Lever said.
Expecting platforms to successfully filter the news puts those companies in a difficult and dangerous position. Users must begin to filter their own news, confront their own predisposition to believe stories that affirm their existing opinions, and stay vigilant when it comes to viral stories.
“It’s not an easy solution,” Lever said. “It comes down to people being educated.”
Interested in learning more? If you’re in New York City on February 16, check out our event on the future of journalism, featuring a panel of expert speakers. You can register here.
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