Fake News, Trump and the Pressure on Facebook: QuickTake Q&A

Facebook to Tackle Fake News

Fake news is big news these days. There’s an emotional debate over the explosion of information on the internet -- and on social media sites in particular -- that’s provably false or intentionally misleading. President Donald Trump, fighting back against allegations that fake news helped him win election, now wields the term against coverage he doesn’t like. As content of dubious authenticity swirls on platforms like Facebook, Twitter and Google, many in the media worry consumers may lose trust in stories that are actually true. Maybe most uncomfortable are the social media companies, Facebook especially. They make millions in ad revenue by distributing information, but the last thing they want are the responsibilities that come with being a publisher, like making sure that stories are accurate.

1. What put fake news in the news?

Some Hillary Clinton supporters said a flood of fake items may have helped sway the results of the November 2016 election in Trump’s favor. They weren’t alone. The "impresario of a Facebook fake-news empire," Paul Horner, told the Washington Post, "I think Trump is in the White House because of me." BuzzFeed found that of the 20 fake election stories that were most shared, commented-on and reacted-to on Facebook, 17 were pro-Trump or anti-Clinton. Trump has sought to co-opt the term, applying it to stories that are unflattering, anonymously sourced or incorrect.

2. What were some of the biggest fake election stories?

That Pope Francis endorsed Trump. That an FBI agent suspected of leaking Clinton’s e-mails was found dead. That a protester admitted being paid $3,500 to disrupt a Trump rally. That tens of thousands of fraudulent ballots, pre-marked for Clinton, had been found in an Ohio warehouse. That Trump once called Republicans "the dumbest group of voters in the country." That Clinton and her inner circle ran a child-sex ring based at a Washington pizza restaurant. (That last one prompted a North Carolina man to visit the restaurant with an assault rifle and a plan to "self-investigate.")

3. Did fake news really influence the election’s outcome?

It’s hard to say. What we do know is that this is the first election in which the majority of U.S. adults got their news from social media. And that news came to them in a very personalized, filtered fashion if they were getting it on Facebook -- serving up what they would want to see. When people are fed the news they want to be fed, they may have blind spots, and not come into contact with other information that challenges their assumptions.

4. Is fake news only a U.S. worry?

It’s an offshoot of the propaganda that has been spread for many years by regimes around the globe. But where propaganda typically implies official government lies, the fake news phenomenon can be truly democratic. The two can be mutually reinforcing. Latvian Prime Minister Maris Kucinskis blames Russia for what he says are hybrid attacks, using both propaganda and false news narratives, that could disrupt this year’s elections in France and Germany. A Kremlin-controlled news agency, Sputnik, and Russia-owned TV network RT “make it their daily business to put out fake news,” a leader of France’s En Marche! party said. The Czech government has set up a center to fight false information and propaganda, including phony reports in the media and on social networks.

5. What can be done?

After initially playing down fake news as a problem, Facebook Chief Executive Officer Mark Zuckerberg has signaled he takes it seriously. Facebook will let users flag content as "fake news" and enable fact-checking partners to label stories as in dispute, a judgment that means the story can’t be turned into a Facebook paid ad -- one avenue toward viral promotion. "Our approach will focus less on banning misinformation, and more on surfacing additional perspectives and information," he wrote on his Facebook page on Feb. 16.

6. Who’s producing fake news?

It comes from many sources. Some purveyors are in it for the advertising-sales money, like teenagers in Macedonia pumping out pro-Trump articles or a pair of 20-something friends in California who call themselves "the new yellow journalists." The difference between the age of Hearst and the age of Facebook is that on social media, shares and likes by outraged friends and family take the place of screaming newsboys on the street corner. Other sources of misleading information are trying to push an agenda. And sometimes the machine is fed by plain old mistakes -- since social media makes everyone a potential reporter, an innocent observation that happens to be wrong can take off if it’s something enough people would like to be true.

7. How does it disseminate so quickly?

A post-election Pew Research Center poll found that 23 percent of Americans say they have shared fake news, intentionally or not. Most people click on stories that spark surprise, sadness, anger or confusion, and those are what they share on social media, too.  Facebook’s algorithm amplifies this content by promoting posts that trigger that kind of attention. Advertisers pay for slots next to these stories because they want to be where the eyeballs are. Finally, the flat landscape of social media wipes out many of the filters we used to use to judge content. At a newsstand, there’s a clear difference between the Washington Post and the National Enquirer. But their Facebook posts can look similar in your timeline.

8. With all the focus on Facebook, what about Twitter?

It’s not getting hammered as hard by the public on this issue. It’s not that fake news doesn’t get shared there -- on the contrary, as Trump demonstrated by tweeting about "the millions of people who voted illegally" and about Chicago’s "record setting" homicide rate. But unlike Facebook, which decides what goes into people’s news feeds based on its algorithm, Twitter shows users everything posted by everyone they choose to follow, in reverse-chronological order.

9. Can an algorithm really tell what’s true and what’s false?

The internet presents a spectrum of information, with hyper-partisan opinion stories masquerading as news, plus lots of satire and funny memes. What’s an algorithm to do? Facebook’s engineers have trained their algorithm to know that if something is really popular, it must be relevant. It might be easy for the company to suppress an outright hoax -- by, say, searching for the topic on a major news site, or detecting a Snopes article debunking it -- but it’s harder to automate the decision on what to do about propaganda-like content meant to rile people up. 

The Reference Shelf

  • A story on Facebook’s moves to counter fake news.
  • Zuckerberg’s latest Facebook manifesto.
  • Bloomberg’s Decrypted podcast goes deep on the topic.
  • A story on the challenges facing Facebook as it tries to address fake news.
  • Bloomberg View columnist Noah Feldman considers whether fake news has First Amendment protection.
  • BuzzFeed’s analysis of fake election news.
  • The story about that armed man and the Washington pizzeria.
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