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Facebook Can Try to Fix Fake News, but It Can Never Be an Arbiter of Truth

How the algorithms lost and why Mark Zuckerberg refuses to make Facebook be a media company

(Ringer illustration)
(Ringer illustration)

Earlier this year, Facebook trending topics news curators were fired after Gizmodo reported the curators felt pressure to give the feature a liberal bias. As we learned more and more about what the actual job entailed, though, it became clear that those in the position were not treated as important members of the team — frankly, it sounded like thankless grunt work foisted upon easily disposable contractors.

It turns out disposable is exactly what they were. Facebook cleaned house and decided to let an algorithm run trending topics, a decision that has produced results that have run the gamut from disastrous to hilariously bad to simply boring. All of this internal corporate strife was happening at the same time as the presidential campaign unfolded — an election season that was dramatically affected by “fake news” and the viral tactics of media-savvy spammers. As good as Facebook’s AI might be at tagging your friends’ faces in photos, it’s not yet quite ready to take on an army of real humans hell-bent on using the internet to push an agenda, a lesson we learned just a little too late.

Facebook has shrugged off its part in this perfect storm. As new revelations about the propaganda scourge that plagued the internet (with Facebook the most serious offender) surface, though, the company has slowly begun to unveil plans to curb what’s happening. Thursday, the social network announced a handful of updates to “[address] hoaxes and fake news.”

A quick summary: Users will now have the option to report something as fake (via a pulldown menu) and to message the person who posted it to let them know it was untrue. Facebook is also working with third-party fact-checkers who will help flag stories as “disputed” — if they are labeled so, they may be placed lower in the News Feed. That means spammers who are using the Facebook advertising platform to make money on hoaxes will now have a harder time doing so, as well.

Arguably the most interesting addition here is that Facebook will turn to third-party organizations — including Snopes, Politifact, and ABC News — for help. The company’s staunch reliance on its own algorithms over human editors is certainly at least part of what brought us to this point, and this should be seen as nothing less than backpedaling. But even still, Facebook isn’t paying these organizations for the work (per a TechCrunch report); instead the benefit is that the organizations will get attention (and also, the satisfaction that they are doing A Noble Act).

First: This is good news. These are quantifiable changes that have the potential to alter how News Feed works and what it looks like. Also, there are real people — experts — involved. But what’s interesting is that Facebook continues to distance itself from such curator-led efforts. It’s not as if Facebook doesn’t have the money to contract a team affiliated with these organizations, or to hire away and create its own high-powered, in-house team to run a well-oiled fact-checking, truth-verifying machine. But it’s that word, right there, that Facebook will seemingly do anything to distance itself from: truth. The network can never be considered “an arbiter of truth,” because then the carefully constructed image as a clean slate for the world to project itself onto comes crashing down. “I believe we must be extremely cautious about becoming arbiters of truth ourselves,” Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg wrote following what may be remembered as The First Wave of “Fake News” Hysteria.

This way, other people and organizations (who aren’t even paid by Facebook, mind you) are assuming the truth-checking role. Once again, Facebook’s hubris leads it to lean back on its algorithms — even though there is more than enough evidence telling us that algorithms are also biased. (Oops.)

Clinging to the blank-slate image is too important for Facebook; any tiptoes into looking like a media company would complicate its relationships with advertisers and publishers — not to mention with the incoming administration in the White House.

The algorithms lost, badly. It feels as if preserving a facade is more important than admitting to a broken system.