TL;DR – A wise man once said, don’t believe everything you read on the Internet.
The recent US Presidential election was a gold mine for some people. A whole bunch of people learnt how gullible Americans are, and how easy it is to trick them into believing whatever they read. Once they found that out, it was a matter of creating “news” websites that sensationalist and often fake content that caters to Trump supporters. These websites have articles with headlines like this: “FBI AGENT SUSPECTED IN HILLARY EMAIL LEAKS FOUND DEAD IN APPARENT MURDER-SUICIDE”
Surely one look at the headline and you would suspect that it’s highly likely to be false, right? But as Trump himself would say, “Wrong!” That article got shared 500,000 times on Facebook. And because these articles were shared so many times, they drew thousands upon thousands of views to the websites they appeared on. For getting that many views, the owners of such websites are well rewarded financially. One prolific, Facebook-focused fake-news writer said he could make USD10,000 a month from AdSense.
Of course, this isn’t a new phenomenon. And it’s certainly not restricted to USA. Here, in Singapore, we had The Real Singapore (TRS). Its owners, Ai Takagi and Yeo Kai Heng, manufactured doctored and patently false articles for profit. They might have gotten away with it if not for the fact that they went overboard and had articles that were deemed seditious. But if we thought that we are rid of the spectre of fake news now that TRS is dead, we would be dead wrong.
There are still sites which make it their business to misquote people, spew rubbish, take events out of context. Like how one particular site claimed that the ex-GIC chief economist, Mr Yeoh Lam Keong, had said that the poor and sick have to suffer in silence until the opposition gets more votes. Yeoh said no such thing. Then there was the claim made by some not so intelligent people that Ai Takagi suffered a miscarriage while in prison. She didn’t.
So clearly the problem of fake news becoming viral on Facebook is something that Singapore has to manage as well. The ideal situation would have been that Facebook would not even allow such fake news to appear on our feeds. But the chief executive of Facebook, Mark Zuckerberg, was in denial for a long time. In fact, he has regularly resisted acknowledging its increasing responsibility in the greater media ecosystem online, instead sticking to its longtime assertion that Facebook is just a neutral platform for connecting people to others.
That has now changed.
On 15 December, Facebook announced four measures to address the issue of fake news and hoaxes:
- Easier reporting
- Flagging stories as disputed
- Informed sharing
- Disrupting financial incentives
Zuckerberg, also put up a post about this on Facebook.
Now, if you read an article that you suspect to be a piece of fake news, you can report it by clicking the upper right hand corner of a post.
Flagging Stories as Disputed
Reporting a post as a piece of fake news doesn’t mean that it’s automatically removed from everyone’s Facebook feeds. Instead, what happens is that if enough people report against a particular post, the story will be sent to third-party fact checking organisations. If the fact checking organizations identify a story as fake, it will get flagged as disputed and there will be a link to the corresponding article explaining why. Stories that have been disputed may also appear lower in News Feed.
If you come across an post that has been marked as disputed, and still, for whatever reasons, want to still share it, you will see a warning that the story has been disputed as you share.
This warning doesn’t stop you from sharing the article. You still can. But… why would you want to do that? Then again… there are all sorts of weird people in the world. And Facebook knows that. It’s compromise feature is that while people can still share articles that have been flagged, such articles can’t be made into an ad or promoted.
Facebook is also looking at ways to analyse other signals to determine if an article is a piece of fake news or hoax. For example, if most people who actually clicked to read an article end up not sharing the article, Facebook may take that as a signal that the article is misleading. Facebook may then rank that article lower, thus making it less likely to appear on other people’s Facebook feeds.
Disrupting Financial Incentives for Spammers
To reduce the financial incentives of spreading false news, Facebook is doing a couple of things. First, they’ve eliminated the ability to spoof domains, which will reduce the prevalence of sites that pretend to be real publications. Second, they are analyzing publisher sites to detect where policy enforcement actions might be necessary.
So, what now?
Since Facebook announced these measures, there has been a number of people who commented that the PAP IB will go into overdrive, reporting all Facebook posts that aren’t favourable to PAP. We think these people need not worry for now. Facebook only flags articles as disputed after enough users have reported and only after the articles have been fact-checked by independent organisations. If anything, even with Facebook’s process, most fake news articles will still not be flagged. Most likely, only the most jialat ones will be flagged. These things work both ways anyway, if the PAP IB can report, so can the anti-establishment supporters.
And the thing is even if the articles are flagged, Facebook is not going to stop you from sharing. Zuckerberg said that Facebook will ‘proceed carefully’ with fighting fake news, but it won’t block opinions.
So. Even though Facebook’s measures are good first steps, what is most important is that we become more discerning consumers of news. Worse if some people will start looking at those flags as badges of honour.
We need to have a healthy dose of skepticism about everything we read. Question everything. Cross-check. Look for evidence to disprove our own points of view. Be ready and open to being proven wrong. It’s not easy. It’s tiring. But that’s what intelligent people do. Let’s hope we all can be intelligent people.