Facebook's problematic fix to its hoax problem

Facebook wants to solve digital publishing’s problem with the truth. But in trying to rid the world of viral hoaxes, the social network has introduced some new concerns.

The social network announced on Tuesday afternoon that it would start limiting the distribution of news stories that its users flag as misleading or false. And while limiting the dissemination of misinformation may be a laudable goal, it raises issues inherent in using an algorithm to make editorial decisions.

There’s no question the social Web has an accuracy problem. The economic pressures of digital publishing have prioritized virality over objective reporting for many publishers, resulting in no shortage of brand-, celebrity- and ordinary Internet user-propagated hoaxes and untruths being passed off as legitimate news stories.

Over this past summer, for example, ABC, BuzzFeed, the New York Daily News, New York Magazine, Refinery29, TMZ and Yahoo (among countless others) all reported that Jeremy Meeks, a two-bit felon, signed a lucrative modeling contract after his smoldering mugshot went viral. That was eventually debunked in a Playboy article that ironically ran alongside another erroneous story about a woman who underwent breast surgery to add a third breast.

The problem is so endemic that late-night host Jimmy Kimmel has made a hobby out of exposing the credulity of the viral publishers with his own hoax videos.

Facilitating the spread of all these phony news stories and prank videos is social media — namely, Facebook. These stories entered the digital media cacophony as tweets, Facebook posts or YouTube videos. Once trending, they get picked up by credulous reporters who in turn “aggregate” them as news stories and blog posts to be spit back out via social media.

Now Facebook wants to provide a remedy, but that, too, presents issues.

The problem is that Facebook is relying on the very people who distribute questionable material on Facebook to police Facebook. The social network declined to indicate how many times a story must be flagged by users before it notifies users that the post is contested, and said there will be no human editors to make sure posts aren’t flagged mistakenly.

“The fact they’re so opaque invites questions about how they do things and their motivations,” said Rurik Bradbury, CMO at Trustev, a software company aimed at eliminating e-commerce fraud. “Facebook won’t say specifics about how many people have to report it to get it flagged or what the conditions are.”

That there’s no human verification could lead to Facebook users working en masse to suppress the dissemination of factual news stories.

It also turns Facebook into arbiter of what constitutes acceptable satire as opposed to blatant misinformation. Bradbury, who spends his free time lampooning future of media experts on Twitter, said he’s unsure how this will affect satirical publishers.

“Facebook is taking away people’s ability to critically consume news,” said Allen Montgomery, publisher of fake news site National Report. “With things that are more subtle, like with what we do, it will have a negative impact on traffic.”

And with Facebook accounting for more than 65 percent of National Report’s incoming traffic, that negative effect could be profound.

“We’ve found from testing that people tend not to report satirical content intended to be humorous, or content that is clearly labeled as satire. This type of content should not be affected by this update,” Facebook wrote in the announcement.

But Facebook users have shown they are not always sophisticated discerners of satire. The blog Literally Unbelievable is dedicated to chronicling Facebook users who were duped by absurd headlines from humor site The Onion. Facebook had to start tagging Onion posts as “satire” in August just so users wouldn’t be confused.

The Onion is surprisingly unfazed by the Facebook announcement, though. In fact, the change will actually benefit The Onion, according to its svp of marketing, Hassan Ali Khan, as it will further differentiate The Onion’s distinct brand and writing voice from less-funny publications.

“It might have its effect on people in terms of idiots reporting us. But we have a dedicated audience, and it really won’t be an issue,” he said. “The Onion is getting shared more and more, and people understand our voice more and more.”

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