In NY Times, Rossalyn Warren writes that Facebook’s crackdown on fake news ignores anti-abortion misinformation
Media Matters’ Sharon Kann explained how Facebook’s algorithm spreads lies about abortion
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Freelance columnist Rossalyn Warren wrote in a November 10 New York Times op-ed that Facebook’s attempt to limit the spread of fake news on its platform has ignored the widespread dissemination of anti-choice misinformation on its platform.
On October 31, executives from Facebook, Google, and Twitter testified before a subcommitte of the Senate Judiciary Committee about their platforms being used to spread fake news before the 2016 presidential election. Warren explained in her article that so far, Facebook has focused on “politics and Russian interference” around the election while addressing the fake news issue and has ignored “the vast amount of misinformation and unevidenced stories about reproductive rights, science and health” on its platform. She gave the example of an article from fake news purveyor Mad World News that incorrectly claimed that former Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton supports so-called “partial-birth” abortions -- a phrase coined by anti-abortion groups that has no scientific basis. Warren wrote that in spite of these inaccuracies, the article was “the most-shared article about abortion on Facebook” with “at least 1.1 million” engagements on the platform.
According to Warren, articles from anti-abortion site LifeNews.com were also some of the most-shared articles about abortion on Facebook last year. For her piece, Warren spoke with Media Matters’ Sharon Kann, who said stories from LifeNews “often generate more engagement than the content produced by mainstream news organizations.” Kann also told Warren that Facebook users engage disproportionately more with anti-abortion content than abortion-rights content. This results in more views for the anti-abortion content “as a result of the company’s algorithms.”
Warren also explained that “there are several human and technical barriers that prevent misinformation about reproductive rights from being identified, checked and removed at the same — already slow — rate as other misleading stories.” Anti-abortion sites “do not mimic real publications, and they publish pieces on real events alongside factually incorrect or thinly sourced stories, which helps blur the line between what’s considered a news blog and ‘fake news.’” In addition, Facebook claims that “most false news is financially motivated,” but, as Warren writes, “the incentive for the people who write content for anti-abortion news sites and Facebook pages is ideological, not financial.”
From The New York Times:
Last year, just weeks before the election, an article from a site called Mad World News began circulating around Facebook. The headline read “Before Applauding Hillary’s Abortion Remarks, Know the One Fact She Ignored.”
In the article, the writer says she wants to expose Hillary Clinton’s lies about late-term abortions. She argues that a baby never needs to be aborted to save a mother’s life but doesn’t cite any sources or studies, and presents anecdotes and opinion as fact. Midway through the story, she shares an illustration of what she calls a “Partial-Birth Procedure” — a procedure banned in the United States. In it, she describes how a doctor “jams scissors into the baby’s skull” and how “the child’s brains are sucked out.”
“Don’t let these lies kill another child in such a horrific manner,” she says, concluding the piece. The article was engaged with at least 1.1 million times, making it the most-shared article about abortion on Facebook last year, according to BuzzSumo, a company that tracks social sharing.
So far, Facebook and the public have focused almost solely on politics and Russian interference in the United States election. What they haven’t addressed is the vast amount of misinformation and unevidenced stories about reproductive rights, science and health.
Evidence-based, credible articles about abortion from reputable news outlets like The New York Times and The Washington Post didn’t make it to the top of the list of “most shared” articles on Facebook last year, according to BuzzSumo. But articles from the site LifeNews.com did.
LifeNews, which has just under one million followers on Facebook, is one of several large anti-abortion sites that can command hundreds of thousands of views on a single post. These sites produce vast amounts of misinformation; the Facebook page for the organization Live Action, for instance, has two million Facebook followers and posts videos claiming there’s a correlation between abortion and breast cancer. And their stories often generate more engagement than the content produced by mainstream news organizations, said Sharon Kann, the program director for abortion rights and reproductive health at Media Matters, a watchdog group. People on Facebook engage with anti-abortion content more than abortion-rights content at a “disproportionate rate,” she said, which, as a result of the company’s algorithms, means more people see it.
There are several human and technical barriers that prevent misinformation about reproductive rights from being identified, checked and removed at the same — already slow — rate as other misleading stories.
First, the question of what’s considered a “fake news” site is not always black and white. Facebook says it has been tackling the sources of fake news by eliminating the ability to “spoof” domains and by deleting Facebook pages linked to spam activity. … But anti-abortion sites are different. They do not mimic real publications, and they publish pieces on real events alongside factually incorrect or thinly sourced stories, which helps blur the line between what’s considered a news blog and “fake news.”
Second, Facebook says one of its key aims in tackling fake news is to remove the profit incentive, because it says “most false news is financially motivated.”
However, the incentive for the people who write content for anti-abortion news sites and Facebook pages is ideological, not financial. Anti-abortion, anti-science content isn’t being written by spammers hoping to make money, but by ordinary people who are driven by religious or political beliefs. Their aim isn’t to profit from ads. It’s to convince readers of their viewpoint: that abortion is morally wrong, that autism is caused by vaccines or that climate change isn’t real.
Simply put, without increased pressure, Facebook’s technical efforts and its human efforts, like fact-checkers’ trawling through flagged content, make it likely that the company, in the months to come, will be seeking out only the “obvious” flags of fake news stories and not the misinformation that is fueled by real people with no financial incentive. That is why those of us who are concerned by the misinformation around reproductive rights need to make ourselves heard.