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Decoding Facebook’s Solution to Fake News

News literacy experts discuss what we should expect from the social media giant’s efforts to abolish the disinformation that dominated the election cycle

(Getty Images/Ringer illustration)
(Getty Images/Ringer illustration)

The past 48 hours have produced an unmanageable torrent of information. On Tuesday afternoon, CNN published a story about a dossier that reporters, politicians, and other insiders had been circulating for months. The document wasn’t verified, so CNN didn’t publish the details — but the publisher did say the contents concerned President-elect Donald Trump’s ties to Russia. Shortly after that bombshell, a much bigger, more controversial bombshell: BuzzFeed published the dossier. BuzzFeed’s editor-in-chief Ben Smith acknowledged that parts of it were unverifiable. The document contained allegations about Trump’s sexual relations with Russian prostitutes, among other examples of scandalous behavior. Then all media hell broke loose.

If none of this were real, and instead a plotline on House of Cards, then the Trump press conference that followed Wednesday morning would be a perfectly suitable climax — the big showdown with the media. But this is real, and the presser — which was often hostile — actually happened. We learned very little. And again, if none of this were real, we could have a conversation about the ethics of revealing an unverified document. We could talk about, in a climate where the words “fake news” have come to mean “news I don’t agree with” and where reporting and sourcing are more important than ever, whether it’s worth the risk to include the public in a conversation being had behind closed doors.

But we don’t have that luxury right now. Instead, it’s time for fixes — and one player at the center of this perfect storm is trying yet another one. On Wednesday morning, Facebook announced its Journalism Project.

Last summer, Facebook got rid of the humans operating its news curation, shirking responsibility and downplaying its role in the very dissemination of so-called fake news. It didn’t work. So now, as the specter of disinformation loomed over a disastrous press conference that should concern anyone who cares about freedom of the press, Facebook is going to try again. Much of what Facebook has planned is information that has been packaged and repackaged multiple times since trouble started brewing last year in the wake of the controversy surrounding its trending-topics section. But there is one new aspect: One of the Facebook Journalism Project’s goals is “promoting news literacy.”

As with most announcements like this, “promoting news literacy” is a vague mission. It’s difficult to quantify what that means or how it will be accomplished. So we went to the experts — people who have studied and advocated for media and news literacy — and asked them what they think of this plan, how difficult it will be to accomplish, and what exactly “promoting news literacy” means.

“Our focus with students — and now with the general population — is to provide the tools to determine what news and information to trust, to share, and to act on. Not to steer people to any particular information or any source as trustworthy, but rather to give them the ability to make those judgments themselves.” — Alan Miller, president and CEO of the News Literacy Project, a nonpartisan, nonprofit educational organization that Facebook is working with to create news literacy PSAs

“I’ve had some discussions with different individuals at Facebook over the course of the last year about the potential to work together in some capacity,” Miller says. “This will be a new campaign where we’ll be working with them to put together the PSAs. We’re just beginning to think about what that would look like, so I wouldn’t point to anything we’ve done to date as necessarily reflecting what we’re going to be doing in the future.” While Miller doesn’t have all the details about how the two will work together, he was able to offer a few specifics about things we will likely see. “We anticipate that the ads will include videos and other multimedia that will be quite familiar to Facebook users,” he says. “We will have final control of the editorial content, which will be consistent with the kinds of things we’ve been doing with students up to now, though obviously this will be aimed at a general population.”

Miller and the News Literacy Project will be pushing users to ask questions — the same ones they’ve been encouraging their own students to ask: “Who created the information? Can they tell where it came from? What are the sources? What’s the documentation? Is there bias in terms of tone and text and photos? Is there elemental fairness? Is this information one should trust, should share, and should act on?”

“Obviously, in the information age, everybody has to be their own editor and everybody can be their own publisher,” Miller says. “So for us the key question is: How do they play those roles in ways that are credible and responsible and empower their voices?”

“I do hope Facebook will also consult with academics and educators who have been studying these issues and problems for years.” — Seth Ashley, associate professor at Boise State University’s Department of Communication

Ashley, a former journalist who has taught digital journalism and researches the impact of media in politics (he’s working on a news literacy research project as well), says that while he’s “glad to see that Alan Miller’s News Literacy Project is involved,” he hopes that Facebook will include the people who’ve been working in this field for their entire careers. “I’m not saying we have all the answers, but I do think we have some evidence about what’s important and what works.” Ashley believes that this positive step certainly will have hurdles — namely, the nature of the internet — to overcome. “If this is going to compete with cat videos and everything else out there, it’s going to have to be grabby.”

“In news literacy, the trick in teaching people about verification is to make them skeptical but not cynical.” — Stephanie Craft, associate professor at the University of Illinois College of Media, the recipient of a McCormick Foundation grant for a news-media literacy project

In addition to teaching journalism and ethics, Craft is a coauthor of Principles of American Journalism, and her research focuses on news literacy and press practices. “We all want to know how to strike that balance between making people skeptical and understanding how verification works, and then not letting them fall over the edge into cynicism about everything they read,” she says, speaking about the Facebook Journalism Project’s challenges. Craft is intrigued by some of the structure that Facebook has already set up, though she’s not sure that it will have the desired effect. “Some of the stuff [Facebook] has started with is marking things as disputed. I am interested [to see] where that goes. Whether that does a good job of not making users feel like they’re being called stupid, but instead makes them part of the effort to improve the information for everyone,” she says. “Maybe engage in some kind of discussion about what about that content caused it to be flagged. Right now, it’s kind of a binary thing: It is or isn’t disputed. But you don’t know the mechanism. I would like to see Facebook’s tools get at the underlying reasons why something might be flagged as a hoax, or fake, or not high quality. That would be the real educational part of it.”

“The intimacy of the local reporter and the local news source might have a better chance of challenging whatever your parents said by connecting you to your community.” — Jennifer Choi, program officer for journalism initiatives at the McCormick Foundation

Choi’s hope for the Facebook Journalism Project is relatively simple: that the platform will use its vast amount of user data to figure how how to “get people to question content and to challenge themselves.” Some of what she’s suggesting will make anyone who’s not a fan of News Feed algorithms unhappy — because she thinks Facebook could tweak the feed to show us opposing views. “If you have a newspaper and you’re flipping through it, you’re going to come across articles on issues that maybe you didn’t have a solid opinion about. I feel like Facebook could perhaps design something using their social media platform to kind of facilitate nuanced challenges of your own viewpoint about an issue.” Facebook has both likened itself to the newspaper and then tried to run from that definition, but it’s beginning to feel like it’s time for the social network to accept the designation. “I’m hoping they’lll create tools in partnership with publishers to figure out really interesting and innovative ways for people to be OK with being a little uncomfortable with how they thought that they viewed the world,” says Choi. “Right now, it’s just not designed that way.”

Choi also believes that a renewed focus on local news will be able to help Facebook combat media literacy issues. “Where I’m seeing a lot of traction to maybe create tools that actually work might be in the local journalism sphere. I was pleased to see that in their announcement. Local is more visceral for people from a geography standpoint and identity standpoint, and I think where Facebook could be really impactful,” she says. “The national content and cable news or whatever will always have an audience, but in terms of actually moving the needle on news literacy … people know local. They know their local broadcaster. The relationships are more intimate and immediate.”

Of course, none of this is easy, and the challenges will continue to mount. “I hope they stick with this even if it’s uncomfortable or people get pissed, because I think eventually they’ll see that consumers will also value Facebook because Facebook did the right thing.”

“Will such efforts help? Perhaps, but who is not aware of the fake news issue now that it has been flogged to death?” — Renee Hobbs, professor of communication studies at the Harrington School of Communication and Media at the University of Rhode Island

Hobbs says her basic understanding of the project is that Facebook will pay the News Literacy Project to create PSAs that will encourage users to pay attention to the sources they’re seeing on Facebook. This is good, of course, but she wonders about Facebook’s intentions. “The News Literacy Project was created by a Pulitzer Prize winner who is concerned about the rise of bloggers and the decline of ‘quality journalism,’” she says. “Perhaps Facebook thinks an alliance with this well-respected group will keep journalists at bay.”

Hobbs also points out that while the News Literacy Project is a respected outlet, it’s not without its skeptics. “Within the larger media literacy community, there have been some criticisms of the pedagogy of the News Literacy Project, which brings [former, unemployed, and retired] journalists into high school to explain the business of news gathering,” she says. “Some feel that the program’s emphasis on verification as the defining quality of good journalism is superficial and others note that the curriculum does not include anything on the political economy of the news media or the rise of public relations, citizen journalism, and advocacy reportage.”

“By and large, I think there are tidbits that they can do that increase user knowledge about some of the structural forces that influence what’s coming through their News Feed.” — Adam M. Maksl, assistant professor of journalism at Indiana University Southeast

Maksl, whose work focuses on youth journalism and whose research concerns tactical ways to employ news literacy, believes there are concrete ways to address Facebook’s media issues — including giving us more information about News Feed. “[Facebook could talk] about how their feed is algorithmically generated based on what they clicked on before and what their friends are sharing,” he says. Of course, the company does occasionally offer such insight, but usually in loose terms, and much of this likely goes unseen by the average user. But Maksl suggests relying on third-party outlets as well (which is already happening, as announced recently). “There are some fact-checking sites that are widely used, so maybe you could say: Worried about something? Check out Snopes or PolitiFact,” says Maksl. “Where I see more of an impact happening is Facebook being able to use social, political, and even economic clout to be able to direct resources to study news media literacy and advocate for the instruction of news media literacy in educational institutions.”

With additional reporting from Victor Luckerson, Alyssa Bereznak, and Kate Knibbs.