Wednesday 12 December 2018

It's past time for Facebook to tackle the rise of 'fake news'

The ‘fake news’ phenomenon, so heavily associated with US President Donald Trump, has presented a huge challenge to Facebook
The ‘fake news’ phenomenon, so heavily associated with US President Donald Trump, has presented a huge challenge to Facebook
Adrian Weckler

Adrian Weckler

Fake news is inextricably associated with one company: Facebook This is for good reason. Facebook is now Ireland's main news source, being more used among ordinary people than any newspaper or broadcaster.

It has more than 2.4 million Irish users, of which more than 1.7 million use it daily for news and social lives. Almost everyone you know is on it.

With such great power comes heightened responsibility. So it may no longer be enough for Facebook to represent itself as 'just a platform'.

Obliterating 'fake news' is proving to be tricky, though.

Some of Facebook's critics say the company should employ more fact checkers to vet everything that is posted on its platform.

Others accept this is impractical but argue that the company could, at least, prioritise better artificial intelligence systems that root out fake articles from made-up news sources.

Facebook's response to this is that it is trying, but that deciding who is allowed to call themselves a news outlet and who isn't can be tricky, especially in an era of news start-ups and tabloid newspapers.

It might also prove controversial to start blocking semi-truthful news stories from established media outlets on subjects such as illegal immigration and bogus health funding plans, said to have swung last year's Brexit referendum.

"In some ways, fake news is almost uniquely a Facebook problem," Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales told me a few weeks ago in an interview.

"What happens is it reaches huge communities of people who are not news junkies. And people shouldn't have to be news junkies. In an open society, you shouldn't have to become an expert on the news in order to deserve to receive quality information. So when it's a week before the election and you pull your head out of the sports pages, you should be able to get concise, clear explanation and make up your mind based on that.

"That is the role of the traditional media. But now when you stick your head up and say what's going on here, you're likely to be bombarded by messages that are not good quality."

A counter-argument to all of this is that Facebook is simply a platform, that all of these accountability arguments were also used when trying to control the internet 10 years ago. The problem with this analogy is that the internet isn't owned by anyone.

But Facebook is. It makes a profit from its activities and its algorithms.

"Social media fuelled fake news because content designed to be shared by friends is not necessarily content designed to deliver accurate information," wrote Snapchat founder Evan Spiegel this week. "After all, how many times have you shared something you've never bothered to read?

"The personalised newsfeed revolutionised the way people share and consume content. But let's be honest: this came at a huge cost to facts, our minds and the entire media industry."

To be fair, Mr Spiegel clearly has other reasons to dislike Facebook. His Snapchat messaging service is losing out to Facebook, which copied Snapchat's core features for Instagram, a service Facebook also owns. He's lost a lot of money.

But while biased, this doesn't mean that he's wrong.

So will people move away from Facebook if the 'fake news' problem persists?

Traditional media organisations (such as this one) may hope so. In theory, a rise in fake news on Facebook could help such media organisations' own marketing efforts.

If you increasingly can't trust Facebook for news, shouldn't it swing eyeballs back to trusted sources?

There is some evidence of this happening with the biggest news outlets. The 'New York Times' has seen its paid subscription base rise by a million, to 2.5 million in just a year. Other paywalled media companies are also seeing encouraging rises. So trusted news will always find a market.

But Facebook's user base keeps rising, too. It is nearing the status of a utility, like Google or a mobile network.

Facebook has now crossed the threshold from being just another tech company to the dominant cultural influence in our lives.

Fake news is a problem. Regardless of how difficult it is to fix, the company had better get used to being held accountable for it.

Irish Independent

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