New Facebook tools to expose fake news

Facebook framed its moves carefully, showing its aversion to being seen as taking an editorial or political stance.
Facebook framed its moves carefully, showing its aversion to being seen as taking an editorial or political stance.PHOTO: AFP

Users and third-party fact checkers can flag stories that have dubious content

WASHINGTON • Facebook Inc is changing its powerful news feed in an effort to stamp out fake stories following a firestorm around the social network's role in spreading false information.

The new features, rolled out to select users in the United States on Thursday, add options for readers and third-party fact checkers to flag articles, tweak Facebook's algorithm and provide more restrictions on advertising. A month ago, chief executive officer Mark Zuckerberg said these changes were coming, responding to extensive criticism in the wake of the US presidential election.

The issue has grown more heated since. A Pew Research Centre survey released on Thursday revealed almost one-quarter of Americans believed they shared fake news and a greater percentage were concerned about its consequences.

Still, Facebook framed its moves carefully, showing its aversion to being seen as taking an editorial or political stance. "Fake news means different things to different people," said Mr Adam Mosseri, Facebook's vice-president of product management. "What we're focused on is the worst of the worst. We're not looking to get into the grey area of opinion." 

Two of the incoming changes are very visible. Facebook users will be able to flag content on the site as a "fake news story". Articles deemed false by Facebook's partner, Poynter Institute's International Fact Checking Network, will have a new tag attached: "Disputed by 3rd Party Fact-Checkers." Publishers behind these articles will no longer be able to promote these articles as Facebook paid advertisements.

The social network will also be working with fact-checking organisations Politfact, Snopes and FactCheck.org, as well as ABC News and the Associated Press, to identify articles as fake. But Facebook is not scrubbing these articles from its site altogether. "If something is being disputed, we're going to let you know," Mr Mosseri said. "But you can still share it because we believe in giving people a voice."

  • Bogus stories

    Don't believe everything you read. Here are some examples of news stories that spread on social media before being found to be false later:

    HO HO HOAX
    Knoxville News Sentinel reported that a terminally ill five-year-old boy died in the arms of Santa Claus actor Eric Schmitt-Matzen. Later, it said it was unable to verify the story's accuracy.

    PIZZAGATE
    News that Hillary and Bill Clinton used the Comet Ping Pong restaurant as a front for a paedophile sex ring spread. A man believed the story, walked into the eatery with an assault rifle, and shot an employee.

    POPE'S NOD FOR TRUMP
    Catholic leader Pope Francis was falsely reported to have endorsed Donald Trump's bid for the US presidency.

    MURDER-SUICIDE
    The fictitious Denver Guardian stated that an FBI agent probing the Hillary Clinton e-mail leaks was found dead in an apparent murder-suicide.

Facebook also said it is snipping financial incentives for publishers of fake news. It plans to cut off producers of content from hoax domains from buying on its ad networks. Mr Mosseri said these websites represent a negligible part of Facebook's advertising revenue. He noted that the adjustments are algorithmic and will not rely on editors employed by Facebook.

He also dismissed the likelihood that users would take advantage of the new features to bombard articles or publications they disagree with, rather than those stories they find blatantly false.

These incidents "happen many times less - orders of magnitude less", Mr Mosseri said. "Most people aren't going to report anything negative."

BLOOMBERG

SEE OPINION: Fake news: Don't make the cure worse than the disease

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on December 17, 2016, with the headline 'New Facebook tools to expose fake news'. Print Edition | Subscribe