This week we’re talking about . . . fakebook

Phoney news spreading across social media is a lot more dangerous than you might think

‘Post-truth’ came to the fore during this year’s US presidential campaign. Photograph: Reuters

‘Post-truth’ came to the fore during this year’s US presidential campaign. Photograph: Reuters


Many of us are guilty of it: a link to a news story pops up in our Facebook or Twitter feeds and we click “share” to pass it on to our followers without really reading what it says. But that laissez-faire attitude may have unintended consequences.

Have you heard about “post-truth”? The term has been bandied about a lot lately. Post-truth is now the Oxford Dictionary’s word of the year, defined as “relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief”.

Sound familiar?

Why is this news now? Everybody knows there’s fake stuff on social media

True. We’ve already covered the spread of Facebook hoaxes – $1,000 from Bill Gates to share a status, anybody? But since the shock result of the US election, Facebook has come under fire for being a conduit to spread phoney news stories.

On one side are those arguing that the fake news sites had a massive impact on the outcome of the election, On the other are lots of people telling them not to be so ridiculous.

By its nature, social media tends to be somewhat of an echo chamber. Your friends usually agree with your world outlook, so the chances of articles showing up in your news feed pushing fake news from a different angle are slim. But that doesn’t mean people don’t have false facts pushed on them from within their own network. That’s where the problem comes in.

It came to the fore recently after a Buzzfeed investigation found that fake news websites were somewhat of an industry in a city in Macedonia. The viral nature of the articles generated massive amounts of clicks, which in turn led to an advertising dollar bonanza for the site owners. In the meantime, the phoney stories were viewed as fact, even though the websites were fictional.

Where does Facebook stand on this?

Founder Mark Zuckerberg posted on his public Facebook page to try to clear up the issue.

“Of all the content on Facebook, more than 99 per cent of what people see is authentic,” he wrote on Monday. “Only a very small amount is fake news and hoaxes. The hoaxes that do exist are not limited to one partisan view, or even to politics. Overall, this makes it extremely unlikely hoaxes changed the outcome of this election in one direction or the other.

“That said, we don’t want any hoaxes on Facebook. 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.”

It’s a tough line to walk. Facebook has to preserve its platform as a place where people can share things, and not act as an arbiter of truth. But consider the power and reach of the network, even more so because Facebook routinely removes posts that it deems breaches “community guidelines”.

In the past, Facebook has come under fire for removing breastfeeding photographs, images of women who had mastectomies that were published to raise cancer awareness, and, most controversially, the iconic “Napalm Girl” Vietnam War photograph.

The “trending topics” Facebook feature highlights some of the most popular articles on the network. A team of editors used to curate the trending topics, but, after accusations of bias, it got rid of the human element and left it up to algorithms.

How did that work out?

Not too well. Among the fake stories that moved to the top of the trending topics list was a story about Fox News anchor Megyn Kelly being a secret Hillary Clinton supporter. Other stories with inappropriate headlines and content also rode high.

What are websites doing about it?

If the sole motivation for these phoney sites is making money, then the plan by both Google and Facebook to cut them off may work. Both say they will ban the fake sites from their ad networks. No money hopefully- means very little point in continuing the charade.

However, for some, it’s a case of too little, too late.

So, how do we tell the difference between real and fake news?

Don’t blindly share the first thing that pops into your news feed. Take some time to read the article, maybe do a bit of fact-checking, look for other – reputable – sources rather than anonymous sites that claim to be something they aren’t. At the very least, check to see if it’s a well-known hoax that has been debunked numerous times.

Of course, that all can and should apply to what has become referred to as the “mainstream media”.