Tuesday Mar 28

Technically Speaking: Fake News is A Real Problem

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The story within the story post-election has been the distribution of ‘fake news’ via social media. While few have speculated that fake news is the reason Donald Trump won the election, the larger concern is that Facebook is not doing enough to prevent the circulation of these stories within its network in the first place.

Fake news stories designed to look and read like stories published by credible news sources. Facebook has been identified as a large distributor of these stories because of its users ability share, like, and comment on posts and spread them widely within their network. A Buzzfeed investigation found that fake news stories were engaged with 8,711,000 times between August 1st and the election compared to 7,367,000 Facebook engagements from credible news sites.

And it is not just private citizens reading and sharing this content, on November 22nd President Elect Donald Trump retweeted an image that incorrectly stated that 81% of white murders in 2015 were by black offenders, a statement that was widely debunked, but a tweet that received 7,984 retweets and 10,708 likes.

According to Pew research, 62% of U.S. adults access news on social media sites. Two-thirds of Facebook users rely on the site as a news source and with 1.18 billion daily active users worldwide Facebook functions as a top distribution channel for content producers.

The issue of fake news is so concerning that President Obama commented on it during a visit to Berlin. “In an age where there’s so much active misinformation, and it’s packaged very well, and it looks the same when you see it on a Facebook page or you turn on your television, where some over zealousness on the part of a US official is equated with constant and severe repression elsewhere, if everything seems to be the same and no distinctions are made, then we won’t know what to protect.”

So where is this news coming from exactly?

A follow-up story from Buzzfeed found that a big source of the top fake news stories about the election come from fake news sites designed and developed from a number of teenagers from Macedonia. And it isn’t a love for American politics driving this content. They have figured out how to monetize on the media storm that surrounded Donald Trump through Facebook’s Audience Network.

Mark Zuckerberg has come under scrutiny for his response to this issue. In a statement posted on November 12th he claimed that 99% of the content shared on Facebook was authentic. Given that almost 85% of Facebook’s active audience lives outside of the US and Canada and these fake news stories about the election seem to target US citizens, this statistic didn’t seem to resonate with users. Zuckerberg later clarified that the stat he shared reflected content shared across all of Facebook.

In a follow-up post, he included some measures that Facebook would be taking to mediate the issue including:

• Stronger detection. The most important thing we can do is improve our ability to classify misinformation. This means better technical systems to detect what people will flag as false before they do it themselves.
• Easy reporting. Making it much easier for people to report stories as fake will help us catch more misinformation faster.
• Third party verification. There are many respected fact checking organizations and, while we have reached out to some, we plan to learn from many more.
• Warnings. We are exploring labeling stories that have been flagged as false by third parties or our community, and showing warnings when people read or share them.
• Related articles quality. We are raising the bar for stories that appear in related articles under links in News Feed.
• Disrupting fake news economics. A lot of misinformation is driven by financially motivated spam. We’re looking into disrupting the economics with ads policies like the one we announced earlier this week, and better ad farm detection.
• Listening. We will continue to work with journalists and others in the news industry to get their input, in particular, to better understand their fact checking systems and learn from them.

Facebook has already taken measures to prevent the misuse of its ad network by not displaying ads on apps or sites that carry fake news. While neither of these measures will prevent the creation and circulation of fake news, this will disincentive those creating content as a means of financial gain. It is not the only site to take a stand on this. Google is also banning fake news sites from its ad network as well.

As the post-election analysis continues, we may gain further insight into the level of influence fake news had on the election, but in the meantime we can all be better consumers of media. Read beyond the headlines, question everything, look for sources, and share sparely.

Noorin Ladhani is a freelance writer in Toronto. She blogs about travel and technology at and writes about Canadian start-ups and tech news at techvibes.com.  Follow her on Twitter at @NoorinLadhani.

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