Facebook will tackle its fake news problem but don’t expect technology to solve everything
Fake news online is by no means a new problem. But the U.S. election on November 8th turned out to be something of a breaking point that brought the issue to the forefront of news headlines. Critics went so far as to speculate whether the mostly right-leaning false stories posted to Facebook could have allowed Donald Trump to win the presidential election.
In the months leading up to the election, headlines like “Pope Francis Shocks World, Endorses Donald Trump for President, Releases Statement” made the rounds on Facebook through shares, comments, and likes. And we’ve since learned many of the culprits behind these headlines – like teens hailing from Macedonia – were profiting off their rumors through ad revenue.
Days after the election, CEO Mark Zuckerberg went on the defensive and said it was “a pretty crazy idea” that fake news on Facebook could have swayed the election. It sounded like he was avoiding the issue. And the public didn’t react well. Take two. In a new statement, Zuckerberg is now outlining some of the things he wants to do to really address the problem of fake news on Facebook.
“Our goal is to connect people with the stories they find most meaningful, and we know people want accurate information,” Zuckerberg said in a post. “We’ve been working on this problem for a long time and we take this responsibility seriously. We’ve made significant progress, but there is more work to be done.”
Historically, Facebook relied more on users to pick out fake news for them. Now they’re taking a number of more proactive steps, like better automated detection and partnerships with third parties.
But Zuckerberg’s hesitation to even step into the fray is understandable. Fake news is not always as clear cut as a story on the Pope endorsing Trump. As Bloomberg points out, headlines will often contain a mix of fact and falsehood and it’s hard to make a judgement call one way or the other. Zuckerberg is loathe to turn Facebook into the arbiters of truth because it’s such a short distance away from censorship.
Besides that, we can’t expect technology will completely fix the problem with fake news. Because just like any drug dealer will attest, supply will always find its way to demand. And one thing we’ve learned post-election is that demand is high for the kind of escapist euphoria-inducing misinformation that supports people’s pre-formed ideological worldviews.