Facebook’s Fake News Problem and What You Can Do to Stop It

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Post-truth was named word of the year by Oxford Dictionaries last week as the scramble to understand what exactly happened in the US election was at full steam. One argument being forwarded is that the proliferation of fake news on Facebook may have influenced the election’s result.

[scroll down if you just want to see the guide to reporting fake news]

As commentators took aim at Facebook, Mark Zuckerberg dismissed claims that the platform influenced the election as ‘crazy.’ Despite kicking back, Facebook and Google have since announced that they will introduce measures to curb the spread of misinformation. Some have welcomed the move while others worry that Facebook is becoming the editor of the internet.

Whether or not we agree that fake news was a determining factor in the US election, the fact remains that it exists, it’s everywhere and it’s a problem. Chief among the events, reporting and commentary in the last week are:

  • Buzzfeed’s report which demonstrated how fake news stories found more engagement on Facebook than real news in the leadup to the election
  • Another report from Buzzfeed about a group of young people in Macedonia who created a network of over 100 pro-Trump websites disseminating false content and cashing in on ad revenue
  • Communications professor, Melissa Zimdars, created a list of fake news, satire and clickbait-y sites for her journalism students in Google docs which was widely shared and was subsequently taken down and rewritten as a list of tips for analysing news sources
  • A browser extension that flags faux news for you, built by Brian Feldman from New York Magazine and based on Zimdars list
  • A confessional from a writer of bogus news who worries that he may have put Trump in the White House
  • President Obama spoke to reporters about fake news on Thursday saying “If we can’t discriminate between serious arguments and propaganda, then we have problems”
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From Buzzfeed’s report: “Viral Fake Election News Outperformed Real News On Facebook In Final Months Of The US Election”

It is important also to ask questions about Facebook and Google’s decision to curb the spread of false content. Putting aside the complicated mess of how to decide what is and isn’t fake, these are large media empires (whether they are willing to admit it or not) and leaving it up to them to decide what is true and fake grants them, perhaps unprecedented, editorial power. Some question whether such judgments would be better off in the hands of an independent regulatory framework.

However, in lieu of Facebook’s pledge to do something about the spread of artificial but very convincingly-real news, we thought it worthwhile to show you how you, the active citizen consumer of news, can do something about it.

The example below is a false news story about Sweden banning Christmas lights in order to avoid offending Muslims. The piece has garnered over 18,000 likes and 10,000 shares since its publication on October 26th and is, of course, verifiably false. But you don’t have to take our word for it – you can always do your own research and hold us to account too.

This particular site wasn’t the only offender. The same story can be found on numerous other websites, including InfoWars.

Anyway, here’s what you can do.

1) Red flag! You see a story that uses a sensationalist or misleading headline and after doing some research on your internet search engine of choice to see if it’s true, you discover it isn’t. Click on the downwards facing arrow in the top-right of the posts window, and click on ‘Report post’;

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2) Another window pops up asking you why you want to report the post. Click ‘I think it shouldn’t be on Facebook.’

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3) Jackpot! Here’s where you have the option to report the story as fake news. After clicking continue you can then decide whether or not you want to hide or block future posts from this page.

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There! You’ve made a small but real contribution to improving the quality of online information and holding fake news sites to account. So instead of yielding to an age of post-truth, we can fight back and post truth (yes, I actually wrote that).

Thanks for reading and keep an eye out for our upcoming tips on news verification.

NOTE: In the interest of fairness, while it seems that most of the fake news sites err on the side of Trump and the Republicans, some sites such as www.winningdemocrats.com, which published a story claiming that an island in Ireland was accepting applications for asylum from people fleeing a Trump presidency, appear to favour the Democrats.

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