In light of how Facebook may have had an effect on the 2016 election, Mark Zuckerberg has been forced to reflect on the power of his social media platform.
After election night, an analysis revealed that fake news distributed through Facebook actually outperformed real, fact-checked news in terms of Likes and shares. In fact, the most popular news story leading up to the election was about Pope Francis endorsing Donald Trump. Even though that never happened and the story has been taken down, it was still Liked and shared nearly a million times.
Other popular (and fake) stories claimed to confirm that Hillary Clinton sold weapons to ISIS or insinuated that she murdered an FBI agent. If voters only saw those stories, it’s not hard to imagine how their opinions of each candidate might have been influenced before heading to the polls. Since most people get their news from social media, it’s entirely likely that was the case.
In a Nov. 12, 2016, Facebook post, however, Zuckerberg claimed that the “fake news” problem is smaller than people think and also something that Facebook is working on.
“Of all the content on Facebook, more than 99% of what people see is authentic,” Zuckerberg wrote. He went on to say that of the fake news stories and hoaxes that do exist, many of them aren’t even political:
“Our goal is to show people the content they will find most meaningful, and people want accurate news. We have already launched work enabling our community to flag hoaxes and fake news, and there is more we can do here. We have made progress, and we will continue to work on this to improve further.”
Letting the Facebook community flag fake news for themselves is certainly a good idea but problematic considering that an alarming number of young people don’t even know how to spot fake news when they see it. On top of that, Facebook’s media algorithm tends to deepen confirmation biases instead of presenting two sides of a discussion. It’s hard to say if Facebook alone is responsible for the “divided nation” you’ve been hearing about all this time, but it certainly isn’t helping.
So what to do?
On Nov. 17, 2016, The International Fact-Checking Network wrote an open letter to Zuckerberg offering its assistance.
A sort of fact-y Justice League, the International Fact-Checking Network is a group of “independent fact-checking organizations set up to promote accuracy in public debate and the media.” It includes fact-checkers from 64 fact-checking organizations across six continents.
In the letter, the organization talked about how open communication will be key in addressing Facebook’s fake news problem and that “truth” can not “be the exclusive responsibility of any one organization.” The letter notes:
“Many of our organizations already provide training in fact-checking to media organizations, universities and the general public. We would be glad to engage with you about how your editors could spot and debunk fake claims.”
Why is all of this significant enough to get the attention of an international squadron of fact-checking superheroes? Because accurate news is important.
There’s some pretty dangerous precedent for when fake news is allowed to spread. The letter points out that unchecked claims on the internet have directly led to violence and death more than once. Plus, there’s another name for fake news: propaganda.
A few days after the IFCN shared its open letter, Zuckerberg shared an update explaining that Facebook already has several other solutions underway. These solutions include making it easier to call out fake news, working directly with journalists, and yes, working with third-party fact-checking organizations.
Will it be enough? Time will tell. There’s simply never been a news distribution platform like Facebook before. So fixing the built-in problems is going to be a unique challenge, but an incredibly important one if evidence suggests that it’s powerful enough to shape our democracy.