Has Facebook helped deluge democracy with fake news?
Social media giant comes under growing pressure to deal with 'active misinformation'
Published 20/11/2016 | 02:30
US President barack Obama, facing the imminent handover to his bombastic successor, had plenty to be concerned about last week. But he still took time to express concern about the impact of fake online news.
Mr Obama, who was described in a New Yorker interview as being "obsessed" with the problem, outlined the new ecosystem of news online in which "everything is true and nothing is true".
"In an age where there's so much active misinformation, and it's packaged very well, and it looks the same when you see it on a Facebook page or you turn on your television, where some over-zealousness on the part of a US official is equated with constant and severe repression elsewhere, if everything seems to be the same and no distinctions are made, then we won't know what to protect," he said.
Mr Obama is not exaggerating. Worse yet, in the last weeks of the US election campaign, according to an analysis by Buzzfeed News, fake news - whether claiming that the Pope had endorsed Mr Trump, or that Hillary Clinton sold weapons to Isil - actually outperformed real news on the platform.
Another widely shared story used a young picture of Mr Trump with variations on a quote that he reportedly gave People magazine in 1998. "If I were to run, I'd run as a Republican. They're the dumbest group of voters in the country. They believe anything on Fox News. I could lie and they'd still eat it up. I bet my numbers would be terrific."
Yet Mr Trump never said that. It is not even possible to know how widely the quote was shared, with a new version created every time another is flagged and removed.
Facebook has faced many controversies in its 12 short years, but has fumbled with the gravity and impact of its editorial power in an age where 62pc of US adults now turn to social media for some or all of their news, according to the Pew Research Centre.
In the early days of the election, Facebook was criticised for what was perceived as over-zealous curation of its 'trending topics' chart. When conservative outlets accused it of censoring right-leaning news stories, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg fired the trending stories team and replaced them with an algorithm - which almost immediately began to distribute fake news.
The problem went unaddressed. Sources told technology website Gizmodo that high-level meetings at Facebook had been under way since May, when a planned update to identify fake news was shelved after it was found to disproportionately impact on right-wing sites, though Facebook officially denies this happened.
Part of the problem, experts say, is that many people share articles based on the headline alone and don't even read the story - let alone critically read the claims within.
In one way, the problem is not a new one. Publications such as the National Enquirer in the US have long bent the truth, often shamelessly. But now a fake story can much more easily masquerade as real because in Facebook's walled garden, all the posts look largely the same.
The ease of deception has given birth to a brand new cottage industry. Earlier this month Buzzfeed discovered that many of the pro-Trump fake news sites - more than 100 of them - were being operated as for-profit click-farms by Macedonian teenagers.
By November 5, Mr Zuckerberg was facing mounting pressure to address the problem. "Of all the content on Facebook, 99pc of what people see is authentic. Only a very small amount is fake news and hoaxes," he wrote on his Facebook page. "The hoaxes that do exist are not limited to one partisan view, or even to politics. Overall, this makes it extremely unlikely hoaxes changed the outcome of this election in one direction or the other."
Experts said this statement sounded like Mr Zuckerberg was in denial. "Facebook and its leaders have consistently applauded themselves for connecting millions of people around the world and enabling friction-free conversation, and have gladly taken unwarranted credit for pro-democracy movements in different parts of the world," said Siva Vaidhyanathan, professor of media studies at the University of Virginia.
"And yet Zuckerberg himself has denied any moral responsibility for the fact that Facebook has helped poison American democracy."
Last Monday, Google and Facebook both announced that they would be making it harder for fake news sites to make money via their advertising networks - though this does not address Facebook's news feed problem.
Pressure continues to grow, even from within Facebook itself. A report emerged the same day that a "renegade" group of "more than dozens" of Facebook employees had formed a task force, kept secret from upper management, to try to address the issue.
"[Zuckerberg] knows, and those of us at the company know, that fake news ran wild on our platform during the entire campaign season," one employee told Buzzfeed.
The only solution to Facebook's problem, according to Prof Vaidhyanathan, is the laborious and labour-intensive human checking of facts. "Facebook would have to hire thousands of people who are trained to make editorial judgments and could step in and edit news feeds," he said.
In the meantime, it's as if Mark Zuckerberg is using some different version of Facebook unafflicted by hoax stories and misinformation.