New Frontiers in Fake News Fight

"You're fake news" - Donald Trump to CNN at first press conference as President Elect - img: CBS
In its latest bid to satisfy demands for a crackdown on fake news, Facebook announced plans this weekend to introduce special online tools in Germany "in the coming weeks" designed to tackle the spread of misinformation. The latest move builds upon the introduction of similar tools in the US back in December. This will be their first appearance in Europe, and will come just before Germans go to the polls.

They work via the tried and tested system of user flagging. Users of the site will have to highlight any story they consider to be false - that is, to contain fabricated facts. Flagged stories will then be passed on to a team of third-party fact checkers. If they also deem the facts underlying the story to be made-up, they will label the story "disputed" in its future appearances on our newsfeeds.

Fake news has long been an issue for social media companies. In September, Facebook and Twitter joined the huge, Alphabet-led 'First Draft' coalition which aims to tackle the proliferation of fake facts and whose other members include the Washington Post, CNN, Buzzfeed, the Telegraph and the New York Times. However, worries turned into a crisis after the shock win for Donald Trump in the US Presidential Election in early November. Later that month, after two weeks and an initial "meh" from Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook announced a seven-point plan for upcoming strategies for a fake news crackdown.

The latest move is a crucial step in consolidating Facebook's initial response to the crisis, which sought to ameliorate its primary concern at the time of muffling the outcry, calming investors and making sure users didn't eschew social media. It's now time to follow-through on some of the promises it made. Indeed, it's also a clever compromise in some ways. By putting the onus of rooting-out fake news onto users rather than its own admins, for example, Facebook will be able to dodge a certain degree of responsibility when it is (inevitably) asked why they haven't erased every shred of non-fact-checked information on the site.

On that point, it's also worth noting just how hard it is to crack down on fake news. Limited resources alone make any fact-checking organisation limited in its capacity to filter information. Indeed, when it was announced last week that the BBC would also be expanding its existing fact-checking service, news chief James Harding asserted that: 'The BBC can’t edit the internet, but we won’t stand aside either. We will fact check the most popular outliers on Facebook, Instagram and other social media.' 

But practical concerns are only part of the problem. Many, for example, regard with anxiety the idea of handing a huge corporation like Facebook the power to censor news items. Still, regardless whether Facebook's fix carries bad implications for democracy and public information, the rolling-out of fake news prevention tools, whilst ultimately flawed, is the best way forwards for Facebook as a company hoping to weather the storm of controversy which, as is elucidated by Donald Trump's ongoing commentary and the upcoming grilling faced by social media companies before British MPs, still remains very much a part of the public consciousness.

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