Unless you’ve just crawled out of Sleepy Hollow, you know that there’s a bit of a controversy going on with the news these days—especially the news that’s coming out of the White House. We’re accustomed to never quite trusting our politicians, and while we’d like to have faith that our journalists are entirely objective, the times clearly have changed. The days of Walter Cronkite, the most trusted man in America, are over. People these days are getting their news from the internet, and they assume that because they read it, it’s true. But scan the morning news, from Breitbart to the venerable New York Times, and you’ll begin to see that the “news” varies dramatically, depending on who’s writing the headlines.
As our journalists report on the news coming out of the new Trump administration, the White House counters the facts with what they call “alternative facts”. What? There are no alternative facts. If we do our due diligence, we find that the White House is just plain lying. Again. We’ve never seen anything like this, and it’s lowering the bar on truth and integrity.
Facebook responds to alternative facts
Facebook has decided that, as a public application that reaches more than 1.86 billion monthly active users, they have both influence and a responsibility, so they have created a new Disputed tag that will appear beneath news stories on the site that have been deemed inaccurate.
- Facebook has added a new Help page outlining how the system works.
- Stories flagged as fake by users will be reviewed by independent fact-checking organizations, including Politifact and Snopes.com.
- Those organizations will be signatories to a “Fact-checkers’ Code of Principles”maintained by the journalism nonprofit Poynter Institute. The principles include nonpartisanship and transparency in sourcing and funding.
Disputed posts and rankings
There’s no indication yet whether the Disputed designation will have a direct impact on how a story is handled by Facebook’s ranking algorithms. The thinking is that users will be less likely to share stories that have received the Disputed tag, reducing their likelihood of being spread.
A dependency, of course, is that the flagging process itself can take several days, which is plenty of time for a story to get plenty of attention. We all know that a story that is topical and sexy, accompanied by an attention-grabbing image, can go viral within a few hours. The internet and social media have made global communication immediate. One big dependency of the Disputed tag is its due diligence: it takes time to research the verity of a fact.
What does Facebook have to gain?
There’s another imperfection of this system that will likely satisfy nobody. Despite huge public pressure to tackle fake news, particularly from the political left, Facebook has no real motivation to tell its readers what to believe.
Potential for reduced user engagement
From a business perspective, filtering or flagging disputed news stories could reduce user engagement among those who had previously enjoyed a steady diet of alternative facts. The move has already invited scathing criticism from the right, potentially actively alienating a huge swathe of Facebook users who apparently feed on the fake news coming out of the White House.
A final thought: It’s an initial effort by a medium that reaches billions of users/month. While it may or may not be effective or completely successful, it may set the stage for other social media applications to look for ways to censor the rise of alternative facts. I believe that truth and trust are still essential to building good relationships.