Last week, Facebook quietly began flagging “fake news” stories with a “disputed” tag across its platform.
Investigative reporter Anna Merlan was one of the first to notice, tweeting last Friday:
Facebook is flagging links to fake sites now, looks like: pic.twitter.com/N7xaWDkdYA
— Anna Merlan (@annamerlan) March 3, 2017
You’ve probably heard the story already but real quick – why is this happening?
Late last year, Facebook vowed to do something about its fake news problem, which many saw as influencing the outcome of the US election.
Mark Zuckerberg, CEO of the social media giant, even wrote a long post on his personal Facebook page about how he would combat “misinformation”. He was careful not to use the term “fake news” because at that time he didn’t believe that Facebook was a “media company”.
Despite what he says, a 2016 study by Pew Research found that two-thirds of American Facebook users get news from the site.
Zuckerberg has since changed his tune, and admitted that his site is a media company, albeit a “non-traditional one”. And since it is a media company, the “fake news” thing is a real problem that must be addressed.
Enter the flagging system.
The feature isn’t available in Aussie Facebook yet, but Gizmodo reported on how it works on the US site. Users can report stories as fake, which will then send the story to “non-partisan third-party fact checkers”. The fact-checkers will then decide if the story is dodgy and award it with the “disputed” tag. Other users can hover under the story to see details about why the story in question is disputed.
OK, so pack it up fraudsters, because fake news is over now. Kaput. Dead.
Well, not quite.
Critics of the new system are finding faults at two extremes: some think it goes too far and others think it doesn’t go far enough.
In the first case, some see the disputed tag as censorship based on the “liberal media bias”. This can easily veer into tinfoil hat territory, and crossover into full-on conspiracy theories usually involving George Soros. This same group of people also believes that Soros owns Snopes, one of the prominent fact-checking sites (he doesn’t). “Who watches the watchmen?”, is their battle-cry.
In the second case, some see the term “disputed” as too weak. Why not just say “fake”, or better yet, delete it entirely? You are entitled to your own opinions, not your own facts, as the saying goes.
Another problem is speed, with many feeling the process just isn’t quick enough. Recode reports that a story by news satire site Seattle Tribune stayed unlabeled for several days due to time it took to fact check. Since Seattle Tribune makes no secret of the fact it creates satire, shouldn’t that have happened faster?
Finally, what happens when users dispute the disputes? Things could get pretty messy. At the end of the day, we can applaud Facebook for trying. However, solving the fake news problem won’t be so easy and is sure to anger many.
If Facebook doesn’t want to be a news company, then maybe it should just go hardcore and ban all news stories from its site. Then, it could go back to what it originally was meant to be: a place to connect with people and share pictures.
But that’s never going to happen. Facebook has become the biggest site for everything – news, info, photos and videos. And while Zuckerberg might think his site is too big to fail, that’s what people said about the Titanic.