The Corner

Politics & Policy

Why Social Media Companies Can’t Stop ‘Fake News’

From the Thursday edition of the Morning Jolt:

Why Social Media Companies Can’t Stop ‘Fake News’

Right before the holiday, Guy Benson noted that two widely-spread viral tweets about the tax reform bill were flat-out false. The first, from actress Jenna Fischer, contended that because of the GOP-supported tax reform, “school teachers can no longer deduct the cost of their classroom supplies on their taxes.”

Cut Fischer a little bit of slack; she eventually corrected her assertion and offered a lengthy apology. Her information was outdated; the House version of the bill would indeed have eliminated the $250 deductions that teachers could take for purchasing school supplies for their students. A short time earlier, it was a fair complaint; the final version of the bill kept the deduction intact. Still, her original complaining Tweet was retweeted at least 46,000 times; her apology was retweeted 3,600 times.

The second, from a now-deleted Twitter account called “@Sykotik_Dreams” – declared, “My wife’s friend just received a letter from Medicaid and Social Security saying her severely disabled autistic 7 year old son just lost his healthcare and benefits. The letter states that it’s due to your #TaxScamBill. It’s 3 days before Christmas you [bad word] [bad word]!!” This, too, was retweeted more than 46,000 times before it was deleted.

Everyone should have smelled “lie” coming off this one. Nothing in the tax bill affected Medicaid and Social Security benefits decisions. The Tweet was written on December 22nd and the final version of the bill passed the House of Representatives on December 20th. A decision like that almost certainly would have had to have been reached, and the letter would have had to have been drafted, before passage of the final legislation. The individual sharing the story offered no further illuminating details – which agency wrote the letter, any justification, or anyone who could be reached to verify the claim.

“Fake news” doesn’t just come from Moscow or Lithuanian server farms. It comes anytime someone offers something false, inaccurate, or deeply misleading, and people choose to believe it and spread it to their friends. In many cases, those who spread it and amplify it want it to be true, because it confirms part of their previous worldview. If you hate Republicans, you want to believe that their tax bill is doing nothing but terrible things to good people, that it’s living up to Nancy Pelosi’s label of “Armageddon,” and that it’s taking away health care from innocent 7-year-old autistic boys. If this dire scenario is true, it means you, the good outspoken liberal who keeps berating your relatives for their intolerably retrograde political views at Thanksgiving, is a hero, and your relatives are monsters for disagreeing with you.

Who’s to blame for fake news, the creators or those segments of the public who choose to believe it?

Facebook just learned the hard way that labeling something “fake news” does not erode the audience or appetite for that information.

Today, we’re announcing two changes which we believe will help in our fight against false news. First, we will no longer use Disputed Flags to identify false news. Instead we’ll use Related Articles to help give people more context about the story. Here’s why.

Academic research on correcting misinformation has shown that putting a strong image, like a red flag, next to an article may actually entrench deeply held beliefs – the opposite effect to what we intended. Related Articles, by contrast, are simply designed to give more context, which our research has shown is a more effective way to help people get to the facts. Indeed, we’ve found that when we show Related Articles next to a false news story, it leads to fewer shares than when the Disputed Flag is shown.

Second, we are starting a new initiative to better understand how people decide whether information is accurate or not based on the news sources they depend upon. This will not directly impact News Feed in the near term. However, it may help us better measure our success in improving the quality of information on Facebook over time.

Let me help you understand how people decide whether information is accurate or not, Facebook. A great many people have strong belief systems, and at the core of those strong belief systems is the idea that they are good and people who disagree are bad; alternately, my tribe is good and the other tribes are bad. If new information comes along and appears to confirm that they and their tribe are good, or that the other tribes are bad, then they choose to believe it. If new information comes along and appears to confirm that they and their tribe are bad, or that the other tribes are good, they will declare the information false.

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