After a certain amount of pressure from outside, it looks as if Facebook might consider reacting to the number of fake news stories propagated on its servers, some of which are claimed to have influenced the recent presidential election in the United States. Google has also indicated that such an action might follow from their side, and others could follow suit in the future. It is a piece of news which should delight many, but which is severely limited and, despite this limitation, could have consequences beyond what is desired.
The limitation at the moment is that both Google and Facebook have said they will limit advertising from fake sites. They will limit the ability of such sites to promote themselves and gain a higher place in the trending topics or front pages of both services. This will not necessarily cut back on the amount of publicity such spoof sites gain, merely their placing on the commercial section of both services; that section which clearly says a site is advertising which many of us overlook. Neither one has said that they will cut back on promoting fake news stories which have achieved high-ranking through other forms of promotion, such as backlinks and shares. A fake news story which is popular will still gain a higher place in the rankings than a real story on the same subject which has had lesser readers, clicks or thumbs-up.
Screenshot Source: Twitter / Fortune
In fact it is almost impossible to dampen or somehow limit the spread of such stories once they have caught the public imagination. You only need to look at the plague of postings on Facebook about the change to their Terms and Conditions, which raises its ugly head continually, to see this. Or the constant complaints when certain true and necessary stories or images – such as a burnt firefighter, or victims of the Vietnam war – are censored. People who create and market such stories have become more adept at their job; they no longer ask people to share a story since this can be removed at source. They tell unwary fools to copy and paste, thus creating a new story each time, one which has to be deleted along with hundreds of other ‘original’ copies individually.
The other danger which it is possible to foresee is that to humor and satire sites who produce articles and posts specifically designed to amuse rather than mislead. The limited number of human beings sitting in front of computers, probably in India and Bangladesh, who are tasked with making a decision on a flagged item, are not necessarily going to be able to understand the difference between a realistic fake and a realistic spoof or a piece of satire. No amount of education can build humor or the understanding of humor in a person, especially when that humor is created in a foreign language with all the nuances and subtleties of language built up over generations.
It is like trying to stop abusive Tweets on Twitter, the attempt is doomed from the start. For Twitter it is a case of ease of production and sheer mass: anyone can create a new account and start afresh, concentrating their abuse against one person or a group of people and then, when caught, moving to a new account and starting from the beginning again. The only way is to educate people again, to the dangers of the Internet, to the likelihood that what they are reading could be biased or falsified. But here we are playing on the bias of the human beings themselves, what they wish to read to confirm their own prejudices. And this is something we are never going to be able to combat.
- Viktoria Michaelis.