Confronting the risks of “fake news”

Why the most prevalent social media platforms need “gatekeepers” like any other media outlets

The controversy over “fake news”– and whether false news reports posted on Facebook affected the Presidential election – highlights a major flaw in social media and underscores an essential requirement for news consumers.

It’s this: readers and viewers of news and information require the assistance of editors and other “gatekeepers” to regulate and filter what’s accurate and what isn’t. This applies to consumers of news, regardless of age, economic status or education level. This has been true for a long time – and the spread of social media hasn’t changed it.

Perhaps the role of such intermediaries has been taken for granted, and consumers are just now realizing their influence. But this has been ignored as Facebook and similar platforms have invested unprecedented power in the individual to select and share information of their choosing.

We may, however, be coming to recognize what it’s like when editors and other intermediaries are removed from the equation. Although social media enjoy immense revenues, they, too can lose credibility and the trust of their customers. What has led the public to select social media as news sources can just as easily lead it to demand that those platforms adhere to established standards of accuracy and fairness.

For Facebook and other social media to underestimate this role and peer-to-peer proliferation of fake news risks not only their credibility, but also their long-term viability.

What is Facebook’s real purpose?

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Facebook CEO and Co-Founder Mark Zuckerberg

The issue is important not only in light of the concerns that followed the election, but because Facebook, with more than one billion users, may be the biggest aggregator and distributor of news on the planet – whether it’s mainstream news or fake news.

A Pew survey released in May suggested that 44 percent of the general population uses Facebook as a news source. That dwarfs figures for other social networks, and it underscores how Facebook cannot shirk its responsibilities in this issue.

The concern here is not with satirical news sources, such as The Onion, nor with sites that clearly are intended to express opinion. Instead, it’s with sites that appear to be legitimate news sources yet are  intended not to inform, but to attract attention and generated peer-to-peer sharing. Such sites, because of their popularity, attract advertising and become very profitable.

Facebook CEO and Co-Founder Mark Zuckerberg first said it was “crazy” to believe misinformation on Facebook had affected the election. When that triggered criticism, he moderated his stance, saying “We’ve been working on this problem for a long time and we take this responsibility seriously.”

To address concerns, Facebook reportedly is considering enlisting fact-checking organizations, helping users flag dubious articles, predicting fakes based on data it has for search and making it easier to report inaccurate information.

Zuckerberg’s commitment to accuracy and fairness, however, may be questionable. It’s been reported that Facebook – eager to enter the lucrative Chinese marketplace – has been working on software that would help Chinese government authorities censor the platform. The effort reportedly led to the resignation of Facebook employees.

In addition, media critic Bob Garfield has asserted that, were Facebook to impose more curation or editorial judgment, it would run the risk of losing the “safe harbor” provided by the Digital Millennium Copyright Act of 1998. The law exempts internet service providers from direct or indirect liability for content shared on their platforms. Many, however, question whether it applies to Facebook, since the social network sells advertising like any “publisher.”

Facebook, however, also faces another, inherent problem: the algorithm that drives its newsfeed shows you stories that, based on its understanding of how other people have reacted to them and how you have reacted to past stories, thinks you will find of interest. The factual accuracy of those stories is not a factor.

When an algorithm jeopardizes a stock price

When that newsfeed combines with peer-to-peer sharing to spread, first, an alarming headline, which then gives rise to an inaccurate story about a company, that company’s stock price can be threatened.

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Pepsico CEO Indra Nooyi

On the news site Vox reporter Matthew Yglesias recently detailed how the newsfeed helped spread inaccuracies following comments by PepsiCo CEO Indra Nooyi at an investor conference. Nooyi related how she reassured employees, including non-whites, women and LGBT people, who had expressed fear for their safety following the election.

A report on her comments was headlined “PepsiCo CEO: employees are scared for their safety after Trump’s election.” Another website saw that report and followed with another, accurate report, but added the headline: “Massive Stewardship Fail: PepsiCo CEO Tells Trump Supporters to Take Their Business Elsewhere.” Soon after came a separate story headlined: “BREAKING: Pepsi STOCK plummets after CEO Tells Trump Supporters to ‘Take Their Business Elsewhere.’”

That wasn’t true, but the inaccuracies were spread by a newsfeed that trawls such posts and rank-displays those deemed of interest. PepsiCo took immediate steps to correct the record and stem the harm to its stock price, but it had weathered an entirely unknown threat beyond its control.

The role of education

Changes in the algorithm and other steps by Facebook might help, but the social network cannot, as a “public” digital provider run the risk of tilting the playing field in favor of certain views, parties or ideologies.

Some have pointed to the role of education. A growing number of secondary and post-secondary instructors, for example, teach “media literacy” to help students learn to evaluate information sources.

Screen Shot 2016-12-01 at 10.04.12 AMA November 21 Wall Street Journal article cited research showing that, by middle school, preteens are online an average of 7.5 hours a day outside of school. The same article reported on a 2015 study indicating that, by age 18, 88 percent of young adults regularly get news from Facebook and social media. Since that study, other research has indicated that Facebook users are trending older – into their 30s, 40s and 50s.

How critical is the need for such education? The article reported on a Stanford University study of 7,804 students from middle school through college. It indicated that 82 percent of middle schoolers couldn’t distinguish between and ad labeled “sponsored content” and a real news story on a web site.

Who wields the power?

Education will take time. As for the short term, a November New Yorker commentary summed it up well: “The most dangerous intellectual spectre today seems not to be a lack of information from the absence of a common information sphere in which to share it across boundaries of belief.”

Put another way, many of the intermediaries and institutions that once helped us evaluate information have been replaced by a multiplicity of voices, outlets and sources that compete for our “likes” with sensational, attention-grabbing headlines.

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President Barack Obama

Following the election, President Obama said, “If we’re not serious about facts and what’s true and what’s not, and if we can’t discriminate between serious arguments and propaganda, then we have problems.”

The key, therefore, is with those who are “serious about facts and what’s true and what’s not.” News outlets that have stood the test of time have been those that served an educated populace by maintaining standards of accuracy and fairness. Likewise, those platforms that have grown to positions of influence in the new media landscape will adhere to similar standards if the populace demands them.

The power, therefore, is in the hands of the consumers of news and information. Because of their convenience, reach and immediacy, social media have established a dominant position in the distribution of news and information.

Although some technical fixes may be required to address the flaws displayed during the election, it’s up to the users of social media to provide the real remedy – by selecting news sources that reflect the judgment and expertise of news “gatekeepers,” and applying a healthy dose of skepticism to those that do not.

Is that, in your view, sufficient? We welcome your comments.

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