Facebook’s fake news problem

Social media platforms which many people now use as prime sources of information are also changing the quality and range of news they see

 

It has become a truism that quality independent journalism has been profoundly disrupted by the digital revolution. But that disruption has been mostly seen up until now as a challenge to the revenue models that traditionally sustained print and broadcast media.

In 2016, though, it has become clear that the social media platforms which many people now use as their prime sources of information are also changing the quality and range of news they see.

In the aftermath of the US election, the role of Facebook in particular in the dissemination of “fake news” has been the subject of increasing debate, and there are concerns about the impact false information and hoaxes may have on elections in Germany, France and other European countries next year.

These concerns are well-founded. With Facebook now the single most powerful player on the global media landscape, its claim to be an entirely neutral content platform looks indefensible.

The algorithms that determine what people see in their Facebook feed are determined not just by the company’s commercial objectives but by highly sophisticated insights into human psychology and neuroscience which have been informed by the astonishing amounts of personal data freely handed over by its hundreds of millions of users. They are profoundly affecting how we find, assess and process news.

The “flattening” effect of services such as Facebook’s Instant Articles also strips out many visual cues and signals which previously offered some guidance to readers seeking authoritative news from reputable sources.

If it becomes difficult to distinguish between an article published by the New York Times and one produced by a white supremacist group, then that is a problem not just for the New York Times but for civic society as a whole. It also offers a commercial incentive to unscrupulous operators to profit from preying on credulity, ignorance and prejudice.

The defensive and dilatory initial reaction of Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg to criticisms of the company’s fake news problem ratcheted up tensions over the issue, and its more recent introduction of a fact-checking filter which relies completely on unpaid moderation by outside agencies has met with a mixed response.

The German government is reportedly planning a law which would impose significant fines for any fake news articles which are not removed within 24 hours, while a senior government spokesperson has stated that “market-dominating platforms like Facebook” will be legally required to build a legal protection office in Germany that is available 24 hours a day, 365 days a year.

Such initiatives almost certainly mark the beginning rather than the end of what is likely to be a protracted and politically-contentious process, as democracies around the world come to terms with a media landscape that has utterly changed.

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