Facebook Has Lost The War It Declared On Fake News

from the fakey-fakey dept

Fake news stories are a scourge. Something different from parody news folks such as The Onion, there are outfits out there that produce false news stories simply to get clickthroughs and generate advertising revenue. And it isn't just a couple of your Facebook friends and that weird uncle of yours that gets fooled by these things, even incredibly handsome and massively-intelligent writers such as myself are capable of getting completely misled into believing that a bullshit news story is real.

Facebook is generally seen as a key multiplier in this false force of non-news, which is probably what led the social media giant to declare war on fake news sites a year or so back. So how'd that go? Well, the results as analyzed over at Buzzfeed seems to suggest that Facebook has either lost this war it declared or is losing it badly enough that it might as well give it up.

To gauge Facebook’s progress in its fight, BuzzFeed News examined data across thousands of posts published to the fake news sites’ Facebook pages, and found decidedly mixed results. While average engagements (likes + shares + comments) per post fell from 972.7 in January 2015 to 434.78 in December 2015, they jumped to 827.8 in January 2016 and a whopping 1,304.7 in February.

Some of the posts on the fake news sites’ pages went extremely viral many months after Facebook announced its crackdown. In August, for instance, an Empire News story reporting that Boston Marathon bombing suspect Dzhokhar Tsarnaev sustained serious injuries in prison received more than 240,000 likes, 43,000 shares, and 28,000 comments on its Facebook page. The incident was pure fiction, but still spread like wildfire on the platform. An even less believable September post about a fatal gang war sparked by the “Blood” moon was shared over 22,000 times from the Facebook page of Huzlers, another fake news site.
So, how did this war go so wrong for Facebook? Well, to start, it relied heavily on user-submitted notifications that a link or site was a fake news site. Sounds great, as aggregating feedback has worked quite well in other arenas. For this, however, it was doomed from the start. The purpose of fake news sites is, after all, to fool people, and fooled people are obviously not reporting the links as fake. Even when a reader manages to determine eventually that a link was a fake news post at a later time, perhaps after sharing it and having comments proving it false, how many of those people then take steps to report the link? Not enough, clearly, as the fake news scourge marches on.

Another layer of the problem appears to be the faith and trust the general public puts into some famous people they are following, who have also been fooled with startling regularity.
Take D.L. Hughley, for example. The comedian, whose page is liked by more than 1.7 million people, showed up twice in the Huzlers logs. One fictitious Huzlers story he posted, about Magic Johnson donating blood, garnered more than 10,000 shares from his page. Hughley, who did not respond to BuzzFeed News’ request for comment, also shared four National Report links in 2015.

Radio stations also frequently post fake news. The Florida-based 93XFM was one of a number of radio stations BuzzFeed News discovered sharing Huzlers posts in 2015. Asked about one April post linking to a Huzlers story about a woman smoking PCP and chewing off her boyfriend’s penis, a 93XFM DJ named Sadie explained that fact-checking Facebook posts isn’t exactly a high priority.
In other words, people and organizations that the public assumes to be credible sources of information are sharing these fake news articles, and the public turns off their collective brains and assumes them to be true. After all, if we can't trust D.L. Hughley then, really, who can we trust? But when even major outlets such as the New York Times have included links in its posts to The National Report, do we really expect people to cast a wary eye towards such an established news peddler?

Well, we should, because the ultimate problem here are the equal parts of a polarized American public coupled with a terrifying level of credulity. Many of these fake news pieces contain headlines for stories that some people want to believe, typically for ideological reasons. This is why a family party recently saw me trying to explain to my grandmother that, no, Michelle Obama probably does not in fact have a penis. That's a true story, friends, and it stemmed from a fake news article. The willingness to believe such a thing is extreme, certainly, but stories of the Boston Bomber getting beaten in prison fuel the same desire for such a story to be true.

The war is lost. Fake news goes on unabated. Long live Michelle Obama's penis.


Reader Comments

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  • icon
    Geno0wl (profile), 2 May 2016 @ 6:40am

    The irony

    I hope irony of Buzzfeed of all sites being the ones whom bring this to everyone's attention is not lost.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      Anonymous Coward, 4 May 2016 @ 4:56am

      Re: The irony

      Buzzfeed have a great investigative journalism department and they've hired a number of very respected journalists to work it.
      I know this sounds like sarcasm or satire, but it really is true. All the awful clickbait bullshit really does go to fund a top notch investigative journalism team.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

      • icon
        John Fenderson (profile), 5 May 2016 @ 6:16am

        Re: Re: The irony

        I'm assuming that what you say here is true, for the sake of argument.

        All the awful clickbait bullshit renders any legitimate journalism Buzzfeed may be trying to do pointless. When a site mostly produces crap, the few noncrap things it does will still be assumed to be crap.

        People who want actual journalism aren't going to turn to Buzzfeed for it (even if it exists there), and the audience that enjoys Buzzfeed probably does not enjoy real journalism.

        reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Kate, 2 May 2016 @ 7:06am

    Fool me once, shame on...hmm... how does that go?

    I've been fooled. My friends have been fooled. But an incredibly handsome and massively-intelligent writer such as yourself? Now, I'm really depressed...

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    orbitalinsertion (profile), 2 May 2016 @ 7:17am

    Could also have something to do with the fact that people find FB incredibly unresponsive to reports of anything. Unless it is breast feeding or people responding to harassment something like that. Then FB is magically all over it.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • icon
      trollificus (profile), 2 May 2016 @ 6:19pm

      Re:

      Fake news is fake. Untrue. Non-facts and non-events reported as actual facts and actual events. People need to put some effort towards determining the truth, rather than just jumping to believe or dismiss reports (as in a Snopes contributor writing an automatically skeptical article dismissing the Emory U Trump Chalk Hysteria.)

      Whereas claims of harassment often have a subjective element. By their assessment of what constitutes abusive, violent or "damaging" speech some people demonstrate such a rare delicacy and finely-honed moral sensibility that I (or others) have to insist they need to own their own emotional reactions. This subjectivity can also be weaponized for internet arguments and utilized in bad faith ("Only a white male cis shitlord would deliberately cause pain to member of an abused, excluded disenfranchised group! You nust want all Xs to die!")

      FB may have their responses a little backwards. Then again their response prioritization may reflect the degree or likelihood of legal responsibility (and the potential cost thereof)

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anon, 2 May 2016 @ 8:04am

    I suppose the real solution is to mimic the relatively successful Email Black List system. If Facebook, Google, and a number of other sites see this as a problem and get together to fix it. "False News is the new Spam". Also - for advertisers to refuse to pay for junk clicks... but then, the advertisers don't care, do they? A viewing is a viewing.

    I spend a lot of time searching for details of computer errors. I find a lot of websites which seem to have copied entire threads; or worse, aggregate sites that have links to almost error message imaginable to enhance their Google rating when searching for specific event errors. Presumably the advertisers don't care about these, either, and it seems neither does Google.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 2 May 2016 @ 8:07am

    Damn you PETA

    So it's not true that hormones injected into cows are turning kids gay?

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Glen, 2 May 2016 @ 9:42am

    Even when you report, I've gotten the response back that it was legit and they left it up. After that you kind of shrug your shoulders, start openly mocking your friends and watch them get all defensive about said post.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    JoeCool (profile), 2 May 2016 @ 9:59am

    Fake news the norm

    When even the big three broadcasters (NBC, CBS, ABC) themselves fake the news on occasion, no one seems to feel themselves above the occasional fake report. Sometimes it's just for fun, like April Fools Day. And sometimes it's to slant an issue the way they want. If they feel the issue is important enough, they may justify it as a "little white lie" to make the public "open their eyes". And sometimes it's just to make a little extra money on the side.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    Ninja (profile), 2 May 2016 @ 10:42am

    To stop fake news from spread you need people to fact check them. Even if you teach everybody how to there's lazy. I myself am guilty of it though I retracted and explained why it was wrong lately. But people don't fact check. At all. So yes, it's a lost battle.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Mark Wing, 2 May 2016 @ 1:36pm

    Obama just passed an executive order to take away all our guns. No fact checking needed because he's said from day one that he hates America and freedom. We all know this to be true. Click here to buy ammunition you can hoard.

    /s

    Honestly though, caveat emptor. There's a few good blogs that go against the grain, but it's a losing battle. For example, my outdoor blog educates people about those flashlight scams. But I'm just a drop in the bucket. Even sites like Techdirt runs those flashlight scam ads. Any site like this one that doesn't heavily screen their Adsense ads is basically getting paid to perpetuate those scams.

    That's the real dirty secret with fake news and scams: everyone makes money and even most (but not all) respectable sites look the other way. Even the sites like mine reporting on scams and fake news make money from the traffic reporting on it. All these scams and fake news is good for everyone ... except the non-tech-savvy reader / consumer.

    I don't know what the answer is other than to try to be on the right side of it and try to educate the people who haven't fallen for it yet, for it is too late for them.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    John85851 (profile), 2 May 2016 @ 5:56pm

    Why do people fall for it

    I think we need to figure out why people fall for fake news stories in the first place. Many of these stories are the "if it sounds too good to be true, then it probably is".

    I can't tell you how many times one of these fake stories was shared by a friend on Facebook's newsfeed only for me to scroll down and a posting shared by Snopes debunking it.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Teri Pettit, 5 May 2016 @ 3:46pm

    The war is fake too

    This article is probably based on self-serving statements from Facebook's PR dept. They only made noises about "declaring war" on fake news to pacify complainants. They don't really want to discourage fake news, because anything going viral bumps their ad revenue.

    The part about having to rely on user complaints to detect fake news sites is total BS; most of them are so well known that there are even lists of them on Wikipedia. Sure, brand new sites might take a few days to get detected, but more than 99% of the fake news comes from long-running sites.

    And the only tactic they used to combat it was to give them low priority for pushing to news feeds. If someone directly posted a link to a group, or directly on a friend's wall, or inside a comment, or any of the other ways that don't go through a priority algorithm, it was treated like any other. And even the news feed ranking tactic probably got weakened over time, as evidenced by the stats about average shares dropping then going back up. (The very fact that they know those stats gives lie to the claim of not knowing which articles qualify for fake news status.)

    If they really wanted to *fight* a war, rather than just "declare" it, what they should do is put [SATIRE] at the front of the caption, like they do with [VIDEO]. That would be in your face, everywhere. And it would be easy to do.

    When somebody raises the white flag before they bring out the big guns, you know they never wanted to win in the first place. They just want to be able to say "oh well, we tried."

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]


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