Facebook Strategy to Halt Fake News Includes a 'Head of News'

Social network will ask users to be vigilant, connect them with fact-checkers, and hire a full-time Head of News to supervise the initiative.

Facebook admittedly is in quite a tough, and unique, position. While it is not a conventional news publisher by any means, it is in fact a 24/7 deliverer to as many as 1.8 billion users of a high percentage of the world's news and information as published by others.

It also happens to be one of the world's largest and most influential deliverers of lies, propaganda and scores of other scurrilous text and images along with legitimate news. Humans, love them or despise them, have been known to tell both truths and lies throughout history, and when profit motives step into play when espousing the latter, lying tends to take precedence.

That makes Facebook a conveying publisher of both public and private information, and that's a lot of information to be shooting around the world via the internet. Up to now, the quality of information carried on the world's largest social network has been under little or no control by Facebook or its users, other than for people to delete false, annoying or otherwise unfit posts as they see fit.

Presidential Election Enflamed the Fake News Phenomenon

This situation was magnified--then enflamed by talk on social networks--by all the fake news sites that popped up during the 2016 presidential election during the last year and a half. False stories proclaiming that the Pope had endorsed GOP candidate Donald Trump in the election and that a pizza parlor in New York City was the setting for an illicit human-trafficking ring affiliated with Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton were the most commonly cited examples of this phenomenon.

Many of these false stories have been traced to a small town called Veles, Macedonia, of all places, where a group of enterprising but highly unethical young men in their 20s sit at keyboards all day and night concocting many of these false news sites. These professional liars are becoming major contributors to the economies of their town.

The newfound financial windfall of creating fake news has twisted the ethics of using the internet completely into a pretzel. The Financial Times reported Dec. 15 that a statement from one creator’s Google AdSense account showed income of more than €7,500 in November alone — no small feat in a country where the average monthly salary is about €350.

"If I make €100,000 this year, I’ll pay €10,000 in taxes — that will pay for two of my teachers’ salaries for a whole year," one teenager told FT in an interview given while he skipped history class. "So, I feel like I’m giving something back."

But they aren't the only ones doing this; there are plenty of other such fraudsters, with many of them in the United States, whipping up political sentiment for or against various candidates. Some of them claim to be collecting as much as $10,000 to $30,000 per month on the ad clicks they attract.

In any case, after weeks of articles and talk on news channels about its role in the proliferation of misinformation, Facebook on Dec. 15 unveiled its strategy against allowing fake news to keep rearing its ugly head on the network's pages.

Using a Form of Crowd-Sourcing

First, Facebook now will use a multi-angled approach that uses a form of crowd-sourcing to curate the content as it comes onto news feeds. The network said it will be asking readers for immediate feedback on such articles and will be using a group of editors to respond to this feedback.

The company also said it will be making tools available for instant notification of false new stories when they appear; at the present time, Facebook allows articles to be blocked on individual news feeds but does not enable blocking fake news for all news feeds.

[To see a larger view of the Facebook reporting app, right-click on the image above and select "View Image."]

Second, Facebook said it has begun the process for finding and hiring a new Head of News, a well-experienced news editor to head up this new effort. Because the network doesn't create its own news and has no control over what information users post, this ostensibly will be one unique editing position.

"We believe in giving people a voice and that we cannot become arbiters of truth ourselves, so we’re approaching this problem carefully," Facebook Vice-President of News Feed Adam Mosseri wrote in a blog post. "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 plans to give readers new tools to flag fake news and connect with fact-checking organizations to flag falsehoods, Mosseri said.

Connecting Readers With Fact-Checkers

"We believe providing more context can help people decide for themselves what to trust and what to share," Mosseri said. "We've started a program to work with third-party fact checking organizations that are signatories of Poynter's International Fact Checking Code of Principles. We’ll use the reports from our community, along with other signals, to send stories to these organizations.

"If the fact-checking organizations identify a story as fake, it will get flagged as disputed, and there will be a link to the corresponding article explaining why. Once a story is flagged, it can’t be made into an ad and promoted, either."

Media critics were happy to hear about Facebook's new plan, but some say there's still a lot of work to be done here. When Facebook hires a Head of News as it second step, then it will have a full-time leader of the initiative.

"It's a good first step, but this can't be the only step," Aaron Sharockman, executive editor of the nonprofit fact-checking organization PolitiFact, told the San Francisco Chronicle. "As we adjust, I assume the people spreading fake news will adjust as well. It's going to be a moving target."

New Tools Coming Next Year

The tools have not yet been released to the public and won't be until early next year, though Facebook said it has been testing them in groups of users for months.

Facebook CEO and co-founder Mark Zuckerberg, who in the past has resisted calling the social network a media company, said several times this year he thought it was a "pretty crazy idea" to blame Facebook and its fake-news problem for the results of the 2016 presidential election.

But in a blog post, Zuckerberg admitted that his company has a "greater responsibility than just building technology that information flows through."

Chris Preimesberger

Chris Preimesberger

Chris Preimesberger is Editor of Features & Analysis at eWEEK, responsible in part for the publication's coverage areas. In his 10 years and more than 3,500 stories at eWEEK, he has distinguished...