A story about Hillary Clinton murdering people was among the conspiracy theories spread on Facebook during the election. Photograph: Justin Sullivan/Getty Images
And so we come back to the algorithm.
Despite continually insisting that its a neutral technology platform and not a media company, Facebook is all-too aware of the influence it has to drive footfall to the polling stations.
Around 340,000 extra people turned out to vote in the 2010 US congressional elections because of a single election-day Facebook message, according to a study
published in Nature.
In a separate study the social networking site worked out how to make people feel happier or sadder by manipulating the information posted on 689,000 users news feeds. It found it could make people feel more positive of negative through a process of
So what should Facebook do? Its certainly not going to be easy. It has tried and failed to get a grip on the problem before, launching a
tool to let users report false information in January 2015. (That ultimately failed because it relied on users, who turned out not to be very good at spotting fake news and also to falsely report a story as fake if they didnt agree with it.) In September 2016, the company joined a coalition, along with Twitter, to improve the quality of reporting on social media and cut down on fake news. We have yet to see the fruits of this alliance. Human v automated editors
In the interim, Facebook found itself in trouble over the team of humans who were curating its trending news section.
According to a former journalist who worked on the project, the team was routinely told to suppress news stories of interest to conservative readers. The company was widely criticized for playing the role of censor and being biased against Republicans.
That led Facebook to fire the editors and let the algorithm decide whats trending. Since then fake news has
repeatedly found its way into the highly influential trending list.
Instead of hiring more editors to check the facts, they got rid of the editors and now they are even more likely to spread misinformation, said Menczer. They dont see themselves as a media company and they run the risk of being told they are picking sides. They are in a tough spot, but they are also making a lot of money.
Facebooks continued rejection of the idea that it is a media company doesnt sit well with some critics. It sounds like bullshit, said high-profile investor Dave McClure, speaking from the Web Summit in Lisbon a few hours after an
expletive-filled on-stage rant about Trump. Its clearly a source of news and information for billions of people. If thats not a media organization then I dont know what is.
He added that technology entrepreneurs have a responsibility to enable a more well-rounded experience for their audiences. A lot of them are only thinking about how to make money. Maybe we need to mix in having ethics and principles and caring about the fact that people have a reasonable and rational experience of the information they process. Although that sounds a little too utopian.
One solution could be to try to reduce the effect of filter bubbles by showing users a wider variety of opinions than their own. Even if people have a tendency to reject those opinions, at least theyll be exposed to a diversity of views.
Wardle suggests that to tackle fake news, Facebook could introduce a mechanism to allow fact checking organisations to report false stories to Facebook so they dont continually circulate. Of course, people will shout censorship, so maybe Facebook could choose to change the way it display certain stories instead, she said.
This is problematic because Facebook would have to manipulate the algorithm to make it less likely you would see something from a site categorized as disreputable. This would potentially involve discounting content your friends were interested in. Then we would not like the platform as much because we like seeing stuff our friends are liking and sharing, said Menczer.
All of these issues point towards the inevitability of Facebook acknowledging that its no longer just a technology company, but a media company
the media company.
In Mark Zuckerbergs first Facebook update post-election, he talked about the need for everyone to work together. We are all blessed to have the ability to make the world better, and we have the responsibility to do it. Lets go work even harder, he said.
Wardle is skeptical. Thats all well and good – but start by changing your platform.