'Fake news' forces Facebook's hand

by Peter Griffin / 01 June, 2017
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Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg. Photo/Getty Images

The effect fake news is having on democracy has forced Facebook to do something about it.

Four months out from the general election, my Facebook newsfeed has taken on a decidedly political flavour. Everything from “dirty dairying” to Auckland housing affordability is being framed as an election issue with news outlets, interest groups and opinionated friends supplying a stream of commentary.

I’m fine with political banter – we should all engage in democracy. The question is whether the chatter will be supplemented by the type of fake news stories that Facebook now admits seriously affected the tone of political discussion in the run-up to the US election.

In a report released last month, Facebook acknowledged that “malicious actors” had spread misinformation via the newsfeeds of millions of its users. That came after founder Mark Zuckerberg had dismissed as “crazy” suggestions that the flood of bogus news stories helped skew the field in favour of Donald Trump.

Zuckerberg changed his tune as the term “fake news” entered the global lexicon. The last thing the social media company’s shareholders want is regulators closing in on it because of a perception that it helped spread misinformation and undermine democracy.

Facebook shut down about 30,000 accounts in the run-up to France’s presidential election and ran newspaper ads teaching people how to spot fake news. The European Union is well known for taking to task tech companies on issues such as data privacy and monopoly power. Any attempt to put controls on Facebook will probably come from the Europeans first, with France taking the lead.

Luckily for Zuckerberg, bogus news stories didn’t feature significantly during the election that put Emmanuel Macron in power. The next big test will be the election in the UK, home of the Brexit movement.

Facebook has made changes to better identify fake news stories, which can also be flagged as false by users. So it’s unlikely fake news will be a major factor here come September.

What’s more likely is an increase in highly partisan political stories from the likes of Kiwiblog, The Daily Blog and Cameron Slater’s Whale Oil.

In the run-up to the 2014 election, Whale Oil was implicated in Nicky Hager’s book Dirty Politics as being close to political lobbyists, based on hacked Slater emails.

A wild card for September could be another hack that spilt the contents of a political party’s computer servers, as happened in the US and France.

In response to the fake news phenomenon, Facebook has come up with tips to identify it (see above). My advice is to focus in particular on tip No 8. If a story seems too crazy to be true, type the key words into Google News. If you get no results or a smattering of obscure blogs, it’s probably fake.

Facebook’s guide to fake news

  1. Be sceptical of headlines: If shocking claims in the headline sound unbelievable, they probably are.
  2. Look closely at the website address, or URL: A phony or lookalike URL may indicate false news.
  3. Investigate the source: Ensure stories come from trustworthy, reputable sources.
  4. Watch for unusual formatting: Many false news sites have misspellings or clumsy layouts.
  5. Consider the photos: False news stories often contain manipulated images or videos. You can search for the photo or image to verify where it came from.
  6. Inspect the dates: False news stories may contain timelines that make no sense or event dates that have been altered.
  7. Check the evidence: Lack of evidence or reliance on unnamed experts may indicate a false news story.
  8. Look at other reports: If the story is reported by multiple sources you trust, it’s more likely to be true.
  9. Is the story a joke? Sometimes false news stories can be hard to distinguish from humour or satire.
  10. Some stories are intentionally false: Think critically about the stories you read and share only news that you know to be credible.

This article was first published in the May 27, 2017 issue of the New Zealand Listener.

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