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Facebook stumbles with early effort to stamp out fake news

The flaws highlight a fundamental question that will be asked this week when internet companies testify in front of Congressional committees

Sarah Frier | Bloomberg 

If Facebook wants to be more influential and valuable, it has to be a platform that garners the trust of its users and advertisers. Photo: iSTOCK

outsources the process to who can only tackle a small fraction of the bogus news that floods the social network, according to interviews with people involved in the process. And screenshots obtained by Bloomberg reveal a process that some partners say is too cumbersome and inefficient to stop misinformation duplicating and spreading.

“There is no silver bullet,” said in a statement. “This is part of a multi-pronged approach to combating false news. We have seen real progress in our efforts so far, but are not nearly done yet.”

The flaws highlight a fundamental question that will be asked this week when internet companies testify in front of Congressional committees: How responsible should Facebook, Google and Twitter be for information others distribute through their systems?

started noticing fake stories trending on its network as early as the summer of 2016, and it took a long-time for the company to take any responsibility. A few days after President Donald Trump’s November election win, Chief Executive Officer Mark Zuckerberg said it was “crazy” to think fake news had swayed voters. But as it became clear that some fake political stories garnered more traffic on than work from traditional outlets, criticism of Zuckerberg’s stance mounted. After reflecting on the problem he said he would prioritise fixing it. His main solution has been the fact-checking effort. In early 2017, contracted for one year with PolitiFact, Snopes, ABC News, and the Associated Press to sniff out fake news on its The company argued that paying outside firms helped address the problem without making the arbiter of what is true or untrue. Some critics say the company wants to avoid this responsibility because that could make it subject to more regulation and potentially less profitable, like media firms.

A previous effort to hire people to curate articles was criticised as biased and the company’s artificial intelligence systems aren’t yet smart enough to determine what’s suspicious on their own. However, an inside look at Facebook’s fact-checking operation suggests that the small-scale, human approach is unlikely to control a problem that’s still growing and spreading globally.

When enough users say an article may be false, the story ends up on a dashboard accessible by the fact-checking staff at the five organisations, according to screenshots obtained by Bloomberg that showed a rash of bogus news. A list of questionable stories appears in Facebook’s signature dark blue font, accessible only after the organisations’ journalists log into their personal social-media accounts. “LeBron James Will Never Play Again,” according to Channel 23 News. “BOMBSHELL: Trey Gowdy Just Got What He Needed To Put OBAMA IN JAIL,” said “Four Vegas Witnesses Now Dead or Disappeared,” claimed

A column to the right of the articles shows how popular they were among Facebook’s 2 billion users, according to the screenshots. In the next column over, fact checkers can mark it “true,” “false,” or “not disputed,” providing a link to a story on their own websites that explains the reasoning behind the decision. The fact-checking sites sometimes have to debunk the same story multiple times. There’s no room for nuance and its unclear how effectively they’re addressing the overall problem, workers for the fact-checking groups said in interviews. They only have time to tackle a small fraction of the articles in their lists, the people added. They asked not to be identified discussing private activity. Once two of the fact-checking organisations mark an article as false, a “disputed” tag is added to the story in Facebook’s News Feed. That typically cuts the number of people seeing the piece by 80 per cent, said recently. But the process typically takes more than three days, the firm said. “It might be even longer, honestly,” said Aaron Sharockman, executive director of PolitiFact. “Everyone wishes for more transparency as to the impact of this tool.” The group has marked about 2,000 links on as false so far, but he said he’s never personally seen a “disputed” tag from this work on the

PolitiFact, known for fact-checking politicians based on what they say in speeches, ranks their comments on a scale of “true” to “pants on fire” — as in “liar, liar.” Before the election, the organisation mostly steered away from obviously false news or hoaxes, assuming reasonable people would see a story about, say, the Pope endorsing Donald Trump and understand that it was clickbait. But when it became clear that fake stories were going viral and gaining traction with people who may have been predisposed to believe them, PolitiFact expanded its focus. There are non-political examples that illustrate this new world of bogus news on that PolitiFact is dealing with. In recent weeks, there’s been a surge of stories about celebrities moving to small towns. Bill Murray’s car breaks down in Marion, Ohio, he’s charmed by the locals and resolves to retire there. That story was repeated for many other towns and there are similar stories about Tom Hanks and Harrison Ford. PolitiFact wrote one article entitled “No, a celebrity’s car didn’t break down in your hometown,” then rated all those pieces “pants on fire.”

First Published: Tue, October 31 2017. 02:51 IST