Facebook does not just have a fake news problem; Facebook has a fake news crisis.
The popular social network where tens of millions of Americans get their news is overridden with blatantly, completely fake news articles. And since Facebook fired its human editors in the wake of conservatives throwing a hissy fit earlier this year, the site’s trending topics section is similarly overridden. Facebook is actively helping put misinformation into its users’ news feeds.
This is reflected perfectly in this Denzel Washington fake news article that Daily Beast editor Ben Collins noted was trending:
This Facebook trending story is 100% made up.
Nothing in it is true.
This post of it alone has 10k shares in the last six hours. pic.twitter.com/UpgNtMo3xZ
— Ben Collins (@oneunderscore__) November 14, 2016
Sam Biddle, a reporter at The Intercept, similarly noted a fake article peddling the same made-up story from “Breitbartt.co”:
— Sam Biddle (@samfbiddle) November 14, 2016
The Washington Post’s Philip Bump listed numerous more:
As Snopes has documented, this completely bogus meme began in August but was still circulating on Facebook -- with Facebook’s explicit stamp of approval -- nearly three months later.
In a New York Times opinion piece, University of North Carolina professor Zeynep Tufekci explained how Facebook founder and head Mark Zuckerberg was in denial about the impact of fake news:
I encountered thousands of such fake stories last year on social media — and so did American voters, 44 percent of whom use Facebook to get news.
Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook’s chief, believes that it is “a pretty crazy idea” that “fake news on Facebook, which is a very small amount of content, influenced the election in any way.” In holding fast to the claim that his company has little effect on how people make up their minds, Mr. Zuckerberg is doing real damage to American democracy — and to the world.
He is also contradicting Facebook’s own research.
In 2010, researchers working with Facebook conducted an experiment on 61 million users in the United States right before the midterm elections. One group was shown a “go vote” message as a plain box, while another group saw the same message with a tiny addition: thumbnail pictures of their Facebook friends who had clicked on “I voted.” Using public voter rolls to compare the groups after the election, the researchers concluded that the second post had turned out hundreds of thousands of voters.
In 2012, Facebook researchers again secretly tweaked the newsfeed for an experiment: Some people were shown slightly more positive posts, while others were shown slightly more negative posts. Those shown more upbeat posts in turn posted significantly more of their own upbeat posts; those shown more downbeat posts responded in kind. Decades of other research concurs that people are influenced by their peers and social networks.
All of this renders preposterous Mr. Zuckerberg’s claim that Facebook, a major conduit for information in our society, has “no influence.”
Terrifyingly, there is no indication that Facebook is prepared to address this fake news proliferation at the scale it demands. Snopes has a list of some fake news sites, but as BuzzFeed’s Craig Silverman has documented, these sites are so easy to set up that by the time you read this dozens more may have been created.
When Google announced yesterday that it would no longer allow fake news sites access to its advertiser database, Facebook quickly followed suit. This may work for Google, but Facebook’s infection is much deeper than that. These websites aren’t simply paying Facebook for promotion -- they’re gaming Facebook’s algorithm using blatant lies to get promotion in users’ feeds for free.
The Wall Street Journal’s tech reporter Scott Austin explained as such:
So Facebook bans fake news from making ad $, but doesn't ban fake news from users' feeds where it makes ad $. https://t.co/5nPeCeKWxO
— Scott Austin (@ScottMAustin) November 15, 2016
The time for denialism and hand-wringing is over. It’s time for Facebook to act. Add your name to our open letter to Mark Zuckerberg here.