Facebook under fire for spreading fake US election ‘news’

Users engaged more with false stories than legitimate ones before going to polls

An anonymous group of Facebook employees has contradicted Mark Zuckerberg’s assertion on the scale of the problem

An anonymous group of Facebook employees has contradicted Mark Zuckerberg’s assertion on the scale of the problem

 

Hillary Clinton has been indicted.

Barack Obama is leaving the US for good.

Donald Trump is dead.

None of these things are true, but all have been reported as fact by “news” websites with names such as National Report, News Examiner, World News Daily Report, ABCNews.com.co, and Empire News.

The “scoop” – courtesy of unnamed FBI sources – that Clinton was going to be indicted in connection with using a private email server while she was secretary of state first appeared on World Politicus, one of more than 100 pro-Trump websites originating from a single town in Macedonia.

A few years ago, such disreputable material would only have been seen by a handful of people. But, with an increasing share of the population now getting its news via social networks, that has changed.

The “news” about Clinton received more than 140,000 shares, reactions, and comments on Facebook.

In September, more than a million people shared an article claiming Trump had been endorsed by Pope Francis (he hadn’t).

The (legitimate) news site Buzzfeed recently reported that at least 140 US politics websites had been launched in the small Macedonian town of Veles during the presidential election campaign. These sites had American-sounding domain names such as TrumpVision365.com, USConservativeToday.com, DonaldTrumpNews.co, and USADailyPolitics.com.

Generate traffic

They published aggressively pro-Trump content aimed at conservatives in the US, but the people who ran them had no particular interest in politics.

They simply wanted to generate traffic and earn lucrative American ad revenues. The easiest way to get shares on Facebook, they found, was to publish sensationalist, often false content that played to the prejudices of some Trump supporters.

“I started the site for an easy way to make money,” a 17-year-old who runs a site with four other people told Buzzfeed. “In Macedonia, the economy is very weak and teenagers are not allowed to work, so we need to find creative ways to make some money.”

The Macedonians mostly plagiarised their fake stories from fringe right-wing American sites, then repurposed them to make them as attractive as possible for Facebook users.

Attempts to target liberals and Democrats, they said, proved less lucrative.

“People in America prefer to read news about Trump,” said a Macedonian 16-year-old who operates BVANews.com.

There’s nothing new about fake news.

Political disinformation, scurrilous lies and outright spoofs have been around since humans first started communicating. But concern has been rising recently about what Barack Obama called the “dust cloud of nonsense” swirling around the internet.

Sixty two per cent of US adults now get news through social media (the figure for Ireland is 52 per cent). If you’re getting news in your Facebook News Feed, there’s very little visible difference between articles published by a reputable news organisation and those produced by a teenager in the Balkans.

Facebook’s algorithms will further reinforce your existing political opinions by showing you similar articles to ones you’ve previously viewed.

Recipe for polarisation

Add in the fact that many people will share a piece of online content solely on the basis of its provocative headline – without even bothering to read the actual article or check where it came from – and you have a recipe for polarisation and disinformation.

On Monday, Google announced that it was going to cut fake news sites off from accessing its advertising network, depriving them of a key revenue source and Facebook quickly followed suit.

Facebook chief Mark Zuckerberg also promised improvements to its News Feed to filter out the fakes, but maintained that more than 99 per cent of content on Facebook was already authentic, that hoaxes were “not limited to one partisan view”and it was “a pretty crazy idea” that “fake news on Facebook, which is a very small amount of content, influenced the election in any way”.

It is impossible to know what effect, if any, fake news had on last week’s US election result, but journalist Craig Silverman published an analysis this week of how much influence fake news had in the closing months of the campaign.

He found that, in the last three months, levels of Facebook engagement – the number of shares, reactions and comments – for the top 20 fake stories surged, surpassing engagement for legitimate stories from publishers such as the New York Times and Huffington Post.

According to Silverman, 17 out of the top 20 fake stories had information favouring Trump, contradicting Zuckerberg’s contention that hoaxes are evenly distributed across the political spectrum.

Anonymous

Meanwhile, an anonymous group of Facebook employees has contradicted his assertion on the scale of the problem.

“What’s crazy is for him to come out and dismiss it like that, when he knows, and those of us at the company know, that fake news ran wild on our platform during the entire campaign season,” said one.

As Facebook becomes the most powerful player on the global media landscape, its claim to be an entirely neutral content platform starts to look increasingly frayed.

“The big internet platforms, through their algorithms, have become an eye of a needle which diverse media must pass through,” German chancellor Angela Merkel told a conference in Munich last month.

Merkel suggested users had a right to know how and on what basis the information they received via Facebook and Google was channelled to them.

“I’m of the opinion that algorithms must be made more transparent,” she said. “So that one can inform oneself, as an interested citizen, about questions like ‘what influences my behaviour on the internet and that of others?’.”

Former Facebook designer Bobby Goodlatte summed the issue up more pithily on his own Facebook wall.

“Sadly, News Feed optimises for engagement,” he wrote. “As we’ve learned in this election, bullshit is highly engaging.”

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