Fake News and Facebook’s Role in the Battle for Truth

January 30, 2017

The topic of fake news and its spread across social media platforms has been a hot-button issue in the United States over the past year, sometimes taking center stage in the presidential election and even including claims among the newly-minted presidential administration.  But our country is not the only one concerned about this issue.
Germany is leading a charge to hold social media platforms Facebook and Twitter accountable for fake news it shares and the legal harm it creates.  German Chancellor Angela Merkel has been a popular victim of fake news, especially on the topic of immigration.  The country’s legislators have proposed laws that would require social media companies to remove fake news and hate speech from their sites within twenty-four hours of it being flagged by a user.  After seeing the national conversation affected during the U.S. presidential election, Germany is seeking to avoid the perception that misinformation might affect their upcoming election this fall.
The legal impacts of this law to social media platforms like Facebook are not insignificant, as German legislators have said fines for noncompliance could reach more than $500,000 USD.  Additionally, in response to fake stories about refugees in Germany, private individuals are bringing suit against Facebook before German courts to recover for slander, defamation, and abusive insults, all of which are all violations of German law.  More broadly, there is the possibility that many other nations may soon follow Germany’s lead in the popular fight against fake news and place companies like Facebook in their crosshairs.
Facebook’ initial stop-gap measures involved asking users to flag potentially false news, and hiring a team of employees to create a trending section by identifying “popular news items and writ[ing] short descriptions of the stories.”  Amidst accusations of bias against conservative news outlets, Facebook announced it would be removing humans from the equation and inserting a specially-developed algorithm to do the work of determining what is displayed in user’s News Feed.  Facebook has now enlisted the help of external organizations like Correctiv, Snopes, and the Associated Press to determine the repeat sources of many problematic posts in order to routinely tweak their algorithm.  In addition, Facebook announced it will ban fake news sources from accessing ad revenue on its platform.  Facebook’s commitment to factual journalism was reinforced by its creation of its Facebook Journalism Project, which among other things seeks to provide e-training for journalist and everyday users to help trust and find accurate news.
Recently, Slate released This is Fake, a browser extension that flags fake content for users on websites and social media sites.  It not only identifies those articles which has been identified as fake, but allow the user to view a summary debunking the article and also post the proof provided as a comment on the article to warn others.  This in effect could use the “virus-spreading” quality that makes fake news so potent against itself.
The University of Indiana’s Observatory of Social Media created a tool called Hoaxy that helps visualize how fake news spreads and the related fact-checking that occurs online.

Social media has grown to become a central source of information for many people, as just last year almost 40 percent of Americans were said to access news through social media.

That is why companies like Facebook are being pressured to take an active role in ensuring that the vehicle of social media is not used to intensify the spread of misinformation.  As the ability to rapidly pass information continues to be used as a weapon of misinformation, companies, technology, and individuals have a shared responsibility to find ways to defend the truth in online mediums.