Since the 2016 election in particular, there has been a lot of discussion about how social media helps to disseminate “fake news”, often without really enumerating what that term means. Last week Facebook asked me to fill in a survey (and gave an audible signal to do so every time I opened the app) about what I knew about the news, featuring a series of multiple-choice questions about political events and celebrity gossip. I gave up about halfway, as I was late for work and I wasn’t sure what to do if I didn’t know — there was no “don’t know” option, so do I leave it blank or just take a wild guess? But it didn’t ask me what I thought of the stories Facebook continually allows to be spewed onto my news feed.
I call these stories “junk news”. A lot of the time, they are not, in any sense, news at all; they are human interest stories or photo series which have been broken up into about 20 or more pages, so you keep having to reload so they can serve up more adverts. And sometimes the lead-ins are dishonest; one of them purports to “finally solve the mystery” of the Australian “dingo baby” story (in which a mother was jailed for murder after claiming a dingo mauled her baby to death), which was in fact solved many years ago: the mother (right) was telling the truth and the dingo did indeed maul the baby. I’ve made a sort of hobby of Googling the name in the story and finding an actual news story about them, then posting the link in the comments so that interested readers don’t have to leaf through the multiple pages and load all the adverts that come with it. My comments get a few likes, but I’m sure they disappear in the comments or maybe get deleted. I’ve not noticed that I’ve been blocked by any of the spammers; they do after all want me to read at least part of their stories, I suppose.
Another part of the problem is the way Facebook “curates” our news feeds. Although you can set your desktop news feed to show the most recent stories, the default is the “top stories” and on the app, getting the “most recent” involves scrolling halfway down the miscellany tab on the right. And often the “top stories” are nothing of the kind; they are frequently several days old and it’s often difficult to tell why they have reappeared. Many of us use Facebook to keep in touch with our friends as much as to keep up to date with politics and campaigns or read other news stories; I don’t want to miss someone’s photos of their recent wedding because of an old, regurgitated non-news story, but that’s what FB’s “curation” does.
Facebook has been lecturing the public about how to recognise fake news and avoid recirculating it, but it has no problem taking money from junk content compilers and putting their plagiarised news stories on our feeds. They also allow people to post stories from sites which, although they don’t employ the infuriating 25-part ad-laden story method, also plagiarise content and repackage it as their own (often the sites are topic-based; one page I sometimes read keeps posting stories from sites with names like “cerebral palsy news”, all of whose content is second-hand). Of course, it is not all Facebook’s fault; mainstream media outlets are often unscrupulous about checking their facts and some willingly act as purveyors of propaganda, often presenting it as news as we have seen with the British tabloids for decades. But it is foolish to expect Facebook to go out of their way to curb fake news when it is one of the ways it makes money.
(And while I was in the middle of writing this, Facebook’s internal rulebook on violence was revealed online; it says a lot about their priorities that “someone shoot Trump” is banned because he is a head of state, but detailed instructions on how to kill a woman are accepted.)
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