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Viral Disinformation Warning: Fake News Are Taking over Facebook
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Viral Disinformation Warning: Fake News Are Taking over Facebook

by Giulio PriscoNovember 14, 2016

Today’s news: Brad Pitt and Harrison Ford voted for Donald Trump, the Republican President-elect of the US, because the liberals want to take away their money; Melania Trump filed to divorce her husband, Donald Trump; Donald Trump himself said to People Magazine that Republicans are the dumbest group of voters; All the news above are fake, but trending on the social networks.

Two stories from pro-Trump site newzinbox.com appeared in the Facebook news feed of some friends in the last few days. The titles are “Brad Pitt SHOCKS AMERICA: “I’m Tired Of Liberals Taking My Money. I Voted For TRUMP!” and “Harrison Ford SHOCKS AMERICA: “I’m Tired Of Liberals Taking My Money. I Voted For TRUMP!.” Not only the titles, but also the full stories are almost word-by-word identical.

The first story is taken from compatriotnews.com, the second seems “original.” Both are fake.

If you see the trending story about Melania Trump filing to divorce her husband because she “is not prepared to be ridiculed for the next four years over her immigration status, accent and her husbands infidelities,” don’t bother to read. It’s fake news invented by clickbait fake news site Now8News. Similarly, Donald Trump never said that Republicans are the “dumbest group of voters.”

The fake news above are relatively innocuous and even hilarious. There are, however, much more disturbing examples of fake news that have been spread to support one or the other camp. I prefer not to link to those.

Earlier this year, Facebook fired its Trending News team, guilty of curating the news with a conservative bias. Facebook was accused of an editorial bias against conservative news organizations, prompting calls for a congressional inquiry against the company, The Guardian reported in an article covering leaked Facebook internal guidelines that appear to confirm the bias. “We routinely suppressed conservative news,” former Facebook news curators told Gizmodo.

After firing the human news curators, Facebook replaced them with algorithms able to choose which news you see based on many factors, including the algorithms’ own evaluation of your political preferences, and the news that your Facebook friends are sharing. But, though Facebook is making impressive advances in Artificial Intelligence (AI), the algorithms’ ability to discriminate between real news and fake news is still poor. The result is that, if one of your friends falls for a fake news item and shares it, you could see the same fake news in your Facebook feed.

Did Facebook Cause President-elect Trump’s Victory?

Donald Trump

Donald Trump

Predictably, Facebook and its buggy news selection algorithms are now accused of causing Trump’s victory on November 8. The company’s CEO Mark Zuckerberg disagrees, The Verge reports. Zuckerberg said:

“I do think there is a certain profound lack of empathy in asserting that the only reason someone could have voted the way they did is they saw some fake news.”

“If you believe that, then I don’t think you have internalized the message the Trump supporters are trying to send in this election,” added Zuckerberg.

“Of all the content on Facebook, more than 99% of what people see is authentic,” said Zuckerberg in a Facebook post. “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.”

According to Zuckerberg, there’s a grey area between fake and real news. Some trending news are evidently fake, which could be spotted by better algorithms and/or human curators. But in other cases it’s difficult to draw a sharp line between fake news and stories that report authentic facts with biased omissions and interpretations. Zuckerberg notes that he hopes to share updates soon on Facebook’s News Feed FIY page, but warns that the problem is challenging:

“I am confident we can find ways for our community to tell us what content is most meaningful, but I believe we must be extremely cautious about becoming arbiters of truth ourselves.”

Reading between the lines, Zuckerberg could have a Reddit-like system in mind, where upvotes and downvotes determine the relevance, reliability, and visibility of a story. But, on Reddit, many users downvote – or even flag as spam – important news stories with a political bias they dislike. Many stories “express an opinion that many will disagree with and flag as incorrect even when factual,” says Zuckerberg.

Zuckerberg doesn’t consider Facebook as a media company. But, according to the Pew Research Center, 66 percent of Facebook’s 156.5 million U.S. users now get the majority of their daily news from the site, which indicates that the social network is a media company de-facto, regardless of the intentions of its founder, and has a deep impact on political choices.

Perhaps the Trump campaign staff were just better at understanding and using social media. They built “a massive Facebook and data engine,” said Trump campaign CEO Stephen Bannon, former head of the conservative media site Breitbart, before the election. ““Facebook is what propelled Breitbart to a massive audience. We know its power.” Bannon is now President-elect Trump’s chief strategist and senior counselor.

In related news, Zuckerberg recently resisted witch-hunting calls to end Facebook’s association with venture capitalist Peter Thiel, “guilty” of openly supporting Trump, and the social network’s interference practices are about to be relaxed.

Images from Ksayer1/Flickr and Wikimedia Commons.


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