Facebook’s game show antidote to fake news

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23 January 2018 | 0

Niall Kitson portraitRemember when McDonalds started offering salads? Of course you do. It was one of the great example of a multinational standing up and meeting the needs of a health-conscious consumer base. That was back in 2004. Nearly 15 years later and salads make up 2-3% of McDonalds’ annual sales. The optics were right but the lure of burgers and fries have proven far more popular than a ‘healthier’ alternative. You can change the product line but overall brand perceptions are much harder to shift.

Consider this in the light of Facebook’s latest attempt to deflect responsibility for content distributed to its global user base of 2.7 billion users. Having woken up to the threat of fake news last year, the social network has struggled to find a way to discern legitimate journalism from fictional clickbait.

Based on current technology the only real solution to the fake news problem is to employ a team of human moderators to audit news sources and ensure the Facebook brand isn’t associated with outlets that serve its users in good faith. For a while Facebook used such a curation model, employing journalists to populate it’s ‘trending news’ profile boxes. In 2016 the human factor was removed in favour of an algorithm and the promise that automation would deliver more relevant new faster. Ultimately, it delivered things that looked like news faster than anyone could call them out for being lies. Facebook made quite a lot of money off fake stories placed as ads, too.

With human curation out and ‘the algorithm’ shown to be unfit for purpose, a new way was sought where news would be verified by external fact checkers such as the Association Press and Snopes. This effort, too, has failed to catch on and partners have reported growing concerned that the initiative is more about optics than corporate responsibility.

Now Facebook is trying something new in its attempt to always be seen to be doing something new to avoid the responsibility of being a media company by adopting the worst possible approach for discerning whether a story is fake or not: asking the audience.

If we have learned one thing about the US presidential election that saw the elevation of Donald Trump, fake news and a flood of overseas propaganda proved, it’s that confirmation bias is the hallmark of a successful social network campaign. Facebook and Twitter are brilliant at letting people build their own fortresses where information comes in through preferred outlets, cementing opinions and giving occasional shots of dopamine when a friend or complete stranger agree with you.

This brings me back to the salad point. Facebook’s knows it has a duty to users to point out the difference between fatty content that makes you feel good, the lean meal that gives you what you need, and the fraud that looks like salad but comes with a dressing that sneakily undercuts all your best efforts.

My bet is they’ll just change the menu about a bit then look for another excuse. It’s worked before.

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