Dec 16 2016

Facebook Takes On Fake News

facebook1Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg has announced that his platform is now going to have third parties review news stories and news sources and label what they think is “fake news.” Facebook will then demote those stories in their news feed.

They have tapped Snopes, Factcheck.org, ABC News, and PolitiFact to be their third-party reviewers.

While this move has been controversial, I think it’s a fantastic idea, although of course not without its risk.

In the last decade we have been moving away from traditional edited sources of news to social media, which blends news and opinion and has essentially removed any editorial barriers. This has been a boon to content producers, with many upsides. The barrier to sharing your information or opinions with the world has essentially been removed. This has led to many great things, like scientists sharing their field of expertise with the public.

There is also somewhat of a meritocracy, with quality writers rising in popularity. People have access to much more information and many more viewpoints.

However, the barrier has also been removed for spreading misinformation. Content creators and websites have sprung up catering to every extreme ideology. This is nothing new but in the past marginalized ideas had marginalized distributions. This too was a double-edged sword – it kept out a lot of nonsense, but also made it difficult (but not impossible) for minority but legitimate opinions to be heard. Without barriers, every voice can potentially be heard, but it became more difficult to distinguish real news from fake news, mainstream from fringe opinions, facts from misinformation, and quality journalism from ideological hack jobs.

You don’t need the infrastructure, distribution, and reputation of a newspaper or magazine. You just need a website, which can be had on the cheap. Once advertising revenue became easy to obtain from online clicks, that created a motivation to create fake news sites, where the content is optimized for sensationalism (click-bait) and not for quality. This means the stories can go beyond misleading to being outright fake. Some sites hide behind calling themselves “satire” while others don’t bother. Sites also spoof legitimate sites to siphon off their traffic.

To make matters worse, aggregators, like Facebook, feed news items to its users based entirely on popularity. While this may seem egalitarian, that is a value judgement that Facebook and other are making. It was not an unreasonable default decision, but now we have seen how that has played out.

Popularity alone is a fine metric for entertainment, but may not be optimal for news. People in a democracy need accurate information. If they are getting most of their news from aggregators that promote popular but low quality or even fake information over quality journalism, then democracy suffers. Further, people tend to read headlines and the brief description of most news items, and more often than not do not click through to the full article. If they read the article they may be reading it in their feed and may not even be aware of its source.

This means that for many people the news stream has become not only democratized but undiscriminating. It’s all the same – fake, real, quality, biased, fact, and opinion.

Of course one solution to this, one in which I strongly believe, is education. Every citizen needs to become their own editor, to consume news skeptically and critically. That would be the perfect solution, but that is also not going to happen anytime soon in large enough numbers that fake news ceases to be a problem.

Zuckerberg, I think, captured Facebook’s situation accurately:

“While we don’t write the news stories you read and share, we also recognize we’re more than just a distributor of news. We’re a new kind of platform for public discourse — and that means we have a new kind of responsibility to enable people to have the most meaningful conversations, and to build a space where people can be informed.”

Facebook does not want to become editors, that is why they are using third party reviewers. They are simply recognizing that quality should also play a role in their algorithm alongside popularity.

Of course, assessing quality opens up the process to bias. No one can reasonably deny that. That is why:

“We’ve focused our efforts on the worst of the worst, on the clear hoaxes spread by spammers for their own gain, and on engaging both our community and third party organizations,” Facebook News Feed chief Adam Mosseri said in a company blog post on Thursday.

This is a good partial solution. The more nuanced the judgment about quality the greater the “bias to objectivity” ratio is likely to be. For obvious scams, fake news, and spoofed sites the bias ratio is likely to be very small. Every reasonable person can agree that the Pope did not endorse Trump in the election. That was clearly fake news, and can be demoted as fake without much risk of bias.

Another solution is to use multiple third party reviewers who have a reputation for unbiased quality. Snopes is a great example.

Perhaps we can look at this situation as a trade-off between quality and bias. You can eliminate bias by having no editorial barriers, but we have seen what happens when you do that. Fake news, hoaxes, sensationalism, and, ironically, biased misinformation thrives. Heavily edited sources, like all mainstream news outlets, have standards of quality, but also have a clear editorial bias.

I think Facebook’s experiment, and it is an experiment, is a good attempt at a compromise. Clearly there is room for a minimal filter to demote the absolute trash and this can be done with a minimum of bias. Let’s see how that works.

As an aside I am careful to use the term “demote” to emphasize that Facebook is not censoring anyone or blocking or removing any information from the internet. They are simply choosing how their algorithm promotes some articles over others on their own platform.

Apparently some on the far right are not happy about this.

“Fact-checkers all seem to be from the left,” Evan Siegfried, a Republican strategist, wrote on Twitter. “Not good for conservatives.”

Other conservatives quickly agreed, hammering Facebook for the move.

“This is a disaster for news coverage,” wrote Ben Shapiro, a prominent conservative and editor-in-chief of The Daily Wire. “It’s an attempt to restore gatekeepers who have a bias as the ultimate arbiters of truth.”

RBPundit, an influential anonymous conservative blogger, published a series of tweets expressing strong concern.

“It’s going to be leftists reporting stories they don’t like and leftists ‘fact-checking’ these stories,” RBPundit wrote. “It’s a fraud.”

I am reminded of Colbert’s famous line, “Reality has a well-known liberal bias.” Some on the far right just support that notion by saying that fact-checking is “not good for conservatives.”

Of course, there is bias and misinformation across the political spectrum. Conservatives may also have a point when they argue that many mainstream media outlets have a liberal bias. However, they have chosen to interpret “liberal bias” as anything that disagrees with their ideology. They are often not substituting liberal misinformation with fact-checking and quality journalism. They are simply putting forward their own outlets that are unhinged from reality, that create a conservative bubble of misinformation. (If you disagree with this, take a look at the Conservapedia. Seriously.)

Yes, there are liberal bubbles of misinformation also. Conservatives, perhaps, have just been more prolific or even successful at creating their own bubbles, or perhaps they felt more of a need. In any case, it seems this has created a feedback loop. Conservatives consuming highly biased conservative news and opinion feel even more that mainstream news outlets have a liberal bias, so they cling all the harder to their conservative outlets. They think mainstream media is “fake news” because it buys into the “global warming hoax” and did not report that Hillary Clinton was deathly ill during the campaign.

People tend to calibrate judgments about things like quality and value based upon themselves. Most people I talk to think their political views are smack dab in the center of reality (if not in the center of opinion). People on the far left do not see themselves as extremists. Their views are the most reasonable, and anyone to their right is too conservative. Similarly, if you consume Fox News anything with less of a conservative bias is clear liberal trash.

Un-edited social media pours gasoline on these feedback loops. It deprives our society of even having a common ground of established facts to use as a starting point for discussion. The result is, well, look around you.

I therefore applaud Facebook and Zuckerberg for recognizing the situation, Facebook’s role in the current information dynamic, and in being willing to experiment with measures to mitigate the absolute worse aspects of unfiltered massive social media platforms. Let’s see how it works.

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