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The fake news problem facing Social Media (..were looking at you Facebook)

On November 8th, 2016 something that many thought was impossible happened, NYC business mogul and reality TV star Donald J. Trump was elected as the President of the United States of America. President-Elect trump has had a widely controversial campaign. His often belligerent words and actions and his unpredictability make many in this country nervous, or in some cases even down right scared. Whether this distaste for and fear of the President-Elect is warranted, only time will tell, but one thing Americans who didn’t vote Trump want right now is someone to blame. It seems they found many things to blame, bad polling, poorly timed FBI investigations, poor voter turnout, and so on. But there is one target of blame that keeps coming up, and with increasing volume, “fake news”

Social media platforms as Facebook and search platforms like Google are facing widespread criticism for providing an avenue for inaccurate, and often down right fabricated news stories to become widely disseminated, and sometimes even viral.  Anybody who has been on the internet for any period of time has come across these types of stories, and sometimes they can be hard to tell from legitimate news. Many of the fake news websites look like legitimate news sources, and in many cases this is by design, to make it look like their false information has some authority. When these stories fit the narrative that someone already believes, they have a tendency to share these articles, further perpetuating false story. In today’s world where people get much of their news from social media, and the news shapes public opinion, this is a big problem; a problem that many feel swayed the last election to favor the Republicans.

One of the biggest targets for fake news is Facebook, and this is also where angry liberals are placing much of their criticism. I believe that Facebook is a fair target; it is after all the largest of the social networks, and anybody who reads their newsfeed regularly will see any number of stories that are clearly useless click bait, inaccurately reported, or false news. Perpetuating fake news on Facebook can be quite lucrative, as a couple of teenagers from Macedonia discovered. Others may choose to do so to influence public opinion, or simply because they have an axe to grind. In response to the criticism Facebook founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg feels that Facebook influencing the election is a “crazy idea” and  made a post to his public Facebook Page in which he mostly deflected the blame, stating that only a small percentage of stories are fake, and that they have already made progress on fixing the issue. He went on to say that Facebook “must be extremely cautious about becoming arbiters of truth”.

I don’t think it I such a crazy idea that Facebook could influence an election to some extent, there were a lot of voters that were unsure of who to vote for, it is possible that a fake endorsement from the pope, or negative stories about Hillary Clinton, true or fake, may have been just enough to push them to the Trump side. In today’s world of sensationalist journalism, and wall to wall coverage, it can be hard for someone to distinguish quality news, from crap. I do think that it is entirely possible that the matter is being overblown a bit, but I certainly think that denying that there is a problem, or attempting to deflect responsibility for the problem makes you complicit in the actions. When you are as large as companies like Facebook, Google, or Twitter your product has a lot of influence, it is sort of the point of such a product, and that is good for their business, but with that comes a responsibility to your users to ensure that your product is not actually affecting them, or our society as a whole negatively.

It is good to see that a discussion is being had and that companies like Facebook are being put on notice that the public believes that they do have a responsibility to mitigate the impacts of junk news. It is good to see that steps have been taken, even if it is begrudgingly, to take away some of the incentives from the publishers of junk news.  Both Facebook and Google have vowed to remove the sites that publish fake news from their ad publishing networks, removing some of the financial incentives.  I am inclined to feel that this is a tough area for Facebook, any action they take will be viewed as censorship, and many will be unhappy. Inaction on their part will also be viewed in a negative light. But maybe they just need to bite the bullet and accept that fake news is a problem, and it reduces the quality of the Facebook platform. Maybe some will get upset, but sometimes we have to do what is right, even in the face of adversity. Where we go from here is anybody’s guess, that ball is in the court of the companies that run these platforms.

Update 11/19/16

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg made another post to his Facebook page accepting that Facebook does have a responsibility and indicating that they have and will continue to take action on battling fake news. His words still emphised that Facebook will move forward with caution, again saying they do not wish to be the “arbiters of truth”. You can read his full post here.

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