Mark Zuckerberg’s denial of fake news’ effects is a dangerous stance to take.
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In the past two days, I’ve seen two hard-to-believe stories pop up in my Facebook feed.
The first, posted by a journalist I’ve worked with, was about how Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau is planning to tax alcohol at 37 per cent. The second, posted by a friend, was about how Lady Gaga is moving to North Bay, Ont.
Neither story is true, but they highlight the huge problem Facebook is facing and, by extension, the dilemma that the media and in fact democracy find themselves in.
I was taken aback by the Trudeau story and instinctively clicked on it. As soon as I did, I got pop-up ads that blocked the text itself, which was a big red flag. I could see the site responsible was The Global Sun, which is certainly no news organization I’d ever heard of.
I closed the page and Googled around for Trudeau and alcohol. A tax of that magnitude would be covered elsewhere, but nothing.
It was clearly a hoax. The Global Sun, it appears, is one of many fake news websites set up to capture social media shares and clicks and the advertising dollars that follow.
The second story, on Lady Gaga, appears to be much the same. The link leads to something called ky12news.com, which again is not any news organization I’ve ever heard of. The site itself has no contact or about sections, or any signs that it’s legitimate.
As one Facebook commenter noted, this particular site makes a habit out of publishing fake stories about celebrities moving to different towns. I’d provide links, but really, this sort of thing shouldn’t be encouraged.
It seems innocuous, but it’s not, given the highly charged debate now happening over what role Facebook and its dissemination of fake news played in last week’s U.S. election.
With hundreds of millions of people using Facebook as their sole source of news, it has become the quintessential fountain of misinformation. Conspiracy theories, bad science and just plain old nonsense are exploding as a result.
Needless to say, people armed with bad information usually make bad decisions.
Unfortunately, Mark Zuckerberg is in denial. As he said the other day:
“Personally I think the idea that fake news on Facebook, which is a very small amount of the content, influenced the election in any way — I think is a pretty crazy idea. Voters make decisions based on their lived experience.”
Some vice-presidents at the company aren’t so sure, which is why Facebook is now reportedly discussing the issue of fake news internally.
The latest report suggests the company could indeed do something about the phenomenon, but has so far chosen not to because it would disproportionately affect right-wing websites. You may remember that Facebook had problems with conservative readers earlier this year, so it’s likely trying to tread lightly on that front.
Evidence of fake news’ harm is starting to mount, though. Mike Caulfield, an online researcher in Washington state, finds that it overwhelmingly outperforms real news.
He found that a story headlined “FBI Agent Suspected In Hillary Leaks Found Dead In Apparent Murder-Suicide,” from the Denver Guardian – a fake publication set up just days before the election – was shared more than half a million times on Facebook.
Real stories from the most popular sections of real newspapers such as the L.A. Times and Boston Globe, meanwhile, received only a few hundred shares each. Even a big national story by the L.A. Times about a KKK march got only half the shares of the Clinton conspiracy article.
“The financial rewards for pushing fake news to Facebook are also several orders of magnitude higher, and so expect this to continue until Zuckerberg can come to terms with the conspiracy ecosystem he created, and the effect it has had of U.S. Politics,” Caulfield writes.
For most of the web’s recent history, Google search algorithms kept fake and illegitimate sources in check by ranking websites based on how many links they received from other legitimate sources.
With Facebook’s size and influence, that system is now in jeopardy. Witness the top Google result for “final election count” – a WordPress blog called 70news. No offence to WordPress blogs, but there’s only one way such an outfit gets to the top of Google results, and that’s by viral shares on social media.
By continuing to do nothing about false information on its platform, Facebook is messing with the very fabric of reality itself. The longer Zuckerberg continues to deny the effects the company is having on public perceptions, the more that reality will distort.
It’s not hyperbole to say that Facebook, by doing nothing, is becoming a real danger to the world. Until changes are made, it’d be wise for users to adopt a new default setting – don’t believe any supposed news you see on Facebook, because odds are good it’s not real.