Why It Matters

Weeding out fake news

Social media giant Facebook last Friday started to roll out new tools to let users and third-party checkers flag inaccurate articles, following mounting pressure to weed out fake news.

Select Facebook users in the United States can flag a fake article visibly, and the Poynter Institute's global network of fact-checking organisations can tag questionable articles with the label, "Disputed by 3rd Party Fact-Checkers". Disputed stories may appear less prominently in users' news feeds.

Publishers of fake articles also cannot promote them as Facebook paid ads. This way, fake news creators would not be able to profit from their scams.

Facebook had been blamed for allowing pro-Donald Trump fake news to go viral, which some believed led to his surprising win in the recent United States presidential election. For instance, one fake news story before the election claimed that Mr Trump was endorsed by the Pope.

Facebook's latest move is a positive one, although it can be abused. For instance, anyone can flood the system with false tagging - to punish genuine websites and news organisations or to subvert the fake-news reporting process itself.

There is a bigger problem - lazy reading habits and the indiscriminate sharing of information online. A healthy dose of scepticism is lacking but is much needed, given the breadth of content online, many from unverified sources.

Fake news and scams are not a new problem. Facebook users have been tricked into giving personal information to participate in fake contests and voucher giveaways.

As the old adage, "if it sounds too good to be true, it probably is", goes, users should be more sceptical of what they read online.

It does not hurt to verify online information by doing a simple search to check if several credible news organisations have also reported about an issue in the same way, or if anyone has flagged the information as fake.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on December 20, 2016, with the headline 'Weeding out fake news'. Print Edition | Subscribe