In an interview with Axios’ Mike Allen, Facebook Chief Operating Officer Sheryl Sandberg asserted that Facebook is serious about its efforts to combat fake news. She said Facebook is “making sure” that fake news purveyors “aren’t able to buy ads on our system” and that the company plans on “cutting them out from any monetization that we offer.”
Sandberg’s announcement is sure to be met with skepticism from those familiar with Facebook’s past failures to curtail the reach of fake news on its site. During the 2016 election, fake news was widely shared on Facebook, including in its “trending topics” section. In response to intense criticism after the election, Facebook reported in August that it was taking measures to limit the spread of fake news. Yet fake news has remained accessible on the site, and the company disclosed in September that hundreds of fake Russian accounts bought more than $100,000 worth of advertisements on Facebook between June 2015 and May 2017. And reports continue to come out about Russia’s use of fake accounts on Facebook to interfere in the election.
Facebook’s “verification” system, meant to authenticate pages, also does nothing to combat fake news purveyors. Facebook has verified the pages of multiple websites on its platform that have pushed fake news, including a website that multiple experts in the U.S. and the European Union have argued is a proxy for Russia and Russian misinformation.
From the October 12 Axios interview, carried live on MSNBC Live With Stephanie Ruhle:
MIKE ALLEN: Turning to free speech and fake news. How do you define fake news?
SHERYL SANDBERG: So, this is an interesting and hard question. And there's fake news that's false, that’s hoaxes. And there's a lot of debate around false news, which isn't going away, which is really around stuff that someone thinks is wrong or is controversial but represents the other side. We know that people want accurate information on Facebook, and that's what we want to see. And it's particularly important in elections, but it's important all the time.
SANDBERG: The first and most important thing is fake accounts. Now, fake accounts were responsible for all of these ads we found and handed over to Congress. But fake accounts also perpetuate a lot of the false news. And so the first line of defense is going after fake accounts. So we're investing in machine learning, heavily in automation, because that’s how we’re going to find these things faster. False news is also -- people think of it, I think, as politically motivated, and of course it is. But it's actually financially motivated, sometimes even more. People are trying to get you to click on stuff to make money.
ALLEN: Sure, it’s a big business.
SANDBERG: Trying to make money. And so, we're going after those economic incentives. We are making sure that people who do hoaxes aren't able to buy ads on our system so they can't spend money to build an audience. And really importantly, cutting them out from any monetization we offer. Going after the fake accounts and the economic incentives.
Facebook is not the first tech company to promise to exclude fake news purveyors from its advertisement services. Google officials also promised last November to stop making fake news profitable, but a month later, numerous fake news purveyors were still displaying ads linked to Google AdSense. Additionally, a recent Media Matters review of advertising networks powering fake news found that Google Adsense was one of the main advertising networks used among fake news purveryors.