Hands of a woman typing on a laptop computer

Will 2017 spell the end for fake news?

January 13, 2017

The rise of fake news stories, especially in Facebook feeds, became one of the biggest news and social media stories of 2016, especially after the US election. For years, Facebook had rejected the idea that it was a news organization or media company, but in December the company seemed to acknowledge what we already all knew – that it had to do something to combat growth of fake news.

Here’s a quick primer on the issue, what’s at stake, and what Facebook is doing to combat the issue.

How does fake news work? We’ve all seen the stories in our feeds – miracle cures, celebrity hoaxes and, through the latter half of 2016, politically-motivated stories meant to change the minds of voters. But how do these stories get into our feeds? The answer is complicated, but at the root is the fact that Facebook’s algorithm rewards engagement, more than truth. So a misleading, or even outright fake story that is widely shared is more likely to show up in your news feed than one that is balanced and truthful, but less widely shared.

Is Facebook a news organization? Facebook has always claimed that it is a tech company, not a media company and that it does not make editorial decisions. This is true, in a sense, and even the new measures to combat fake news do not involve Facebook staff deciding what is real news and what is fake. But the reality is that Facebook’s algorithm makes billions of editorial decisions every day and Facebook’s acknowledgement of the fake news problem suggests they understand they have a responsibility to help protect news integrity.

Is Facebook a publisher? This is an easy one. Yes. For some time, Facebook has been encouraging news organizations and brands to publish content directly to the platform. And most content creators see the benefit. Why? Because delivering content in-feed dramatically increases engagement. Facebook Instant Articles enjoy 20% more clicks, 30% more shares and readers are 70% less likely to abandon. The challenge for news organizations though is that their brand of journalism – balanced, truthful, and with a lot less hyperbole – doesn’t always get the kind of engagement that the more provocative fake news stories do. That can put pressure on legitimate news sources to tweak how they write their headlines and stories.

What is Facebook doing to combat fake news? Facebook is tackling the issue in three important ways.

1. They’re making it easier for users to flag stories as fake. This is now done through the drop down menu on the top right of posts in your feed. Clicking on “report post” in this menu now includes an option for “this is fake news.”

2. Facebook is working with fact checking organizations. Once stories are flagged by users as fake, they will be vetted by independent third-party fact checking organizations including Snopes, which is part an international fact-checking network led by Poynter, a nonprofit school for journalism in St. Petersburg, Florida. If the independent fact checkers determine that the story is in fact fake, it will be labelled as such and demoted in the News Feed. Facebook users will also be warned that a story has been flagged when sharing.

3. Facebook (and Google) are also restricting advertising on fake news sites. Fake news sites and spoofed domains will no longer be able to sell advertising on either site, eliminating one of the key ways purveyors of fake news pay for their schemes.

Will all of these efforts work? It’s too early to tell, but initial impressions are positive. For brands, we recommend that you stay the course. Facebook is still an integral part of any integrated marketing campaign and we don’t see that changing that anytime soon.

It’s also important to take the high road. While brands would never create fake news, it can be tempting to get into the clickbait game to try to pump up engagement. But experience shows that it’s far more important for brands to create content that fits your image and the expectations of your audiences than it is to ratchet up engagement numbers through misleading or off-brand clickbait.