Facebook is great at giving people things they, like from funny videos to links to heartwarming blog posts. And even if you don’t like some racist meme, somebody’s uncle sure does. But those are all opinions. Whether it admits it or not, Facebook has also become a powerful news delivery platform. And the thing about news is it’s supposed to be true even if you don’t like it.
Providing over a billion users all over the globe with news is a monumental responsibility, and unfortunately, Facebook has been failing. This week Caitlin Dewey at The Washington Post wrote a story about how the social media monolith continues to surface fake news stories in its Trending slot. Trending topics as a feature was designed to give users news that, while personalized to their interests, was still true. However, according to Facebook these days 9/11 was an inside job, Siri is a physical being that can come out of your iPhone to do chores, and Megyn Kelly got canned from Fox News for backing Hillary Clinton. All bogus!
You’d think Facebook with all of its money could hire some human beings who could spot out these lies before they’re spewed across the net. You’d be right. Facebook used to have editors who did exactly that. You know, like a real media organization. But in an ironic twist of fate, the desire to remove human bias from the news just left the news even more susceptible to misinformation and political whims.
Facebook came under fire from those who felt editors of certain political stripes (the Left) were using their power to suppress alternative viewpoints. So Facebook switched to a pure algorithm to determine newsworthy topics based on things like how many articles linked to them. It didn’t matter if those articles came from flagrantly partisan and outright fraudulent sources. Satire, conspiracies, mindless trivia, distorted half-truths, or outright lies. Shovel ‘em all in! Who cares? And so here we ar0e, falsehoods reign.
At journalism school, I saw this video, Epic 2014, speculating on what the future of news would be like in a world dominated by strictly mechanical customizable aggregators. Parts of it are pretty dated (lol, Friendster), but the core horror still rings true.
For the most part, facts are facts, regardless of politics. And staying aware of what is and isn’t a fact, breaking out of our own biases, is especially important in a year where Donald Trump might be the next president of the United States. However, despite Facebook’s failings, technology can in fact be an ally in this moral imperative. Just ask Google.
Google recently announced it will now fact-check stories that appear in Google News. The search has already labeled stories for years with tags like In-Depth, Opinion, and Wikipedia. But now boxes for important news stories will also contain links to other credible stories users can use to fact check the article. It’s not a perfect system as it still relies on online resources we’ve already proven are disturbingly malleable, but it’s something. To help, Google is using schema.org’s ClaimReview markup, and other fact-checking sites can apply to offer their services.
Machines and algorithms are not inherently objective. They aren’t the perfect and cold pieces of steel we think they are. They inherit the flaws of their human creators. And confusing facts with fiction, willfully or not, is a very human flaw. So as tech-savvy citizens and newshounds, it’s up to us to make sure in the future truth isn’t lost in the code.