Facebook struggles to purge fake news

Accused of influencing the US election, the social media group is now using more fact-checkers

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Tucked away on the first floor of a brightly painted backpackers’ hostel in central Berlin is Correctiv, a small non-profit media start-up with a big job: helping to save Facebook from an epidemic of fake news.

David Schraven, its proprietor and chief editor, is a bearded, balding former journalist who used to head up investigations at Funke Mediengruppe, Germany’s third-largest media publisher. His background is in investigating neo-Nazis and underground terror organisations, not technology and social networks. “I never cared about Facebook or its relationship to the media,” he says.

But his attitude changed after watching the impact of online “fake news” in the campaigns of Britain’s EU referendum and the US election. He began to worry that “disruptive forces” spreading deliberately false news reports could influence Germany’s national poll in September, when Chancellor Angela Merkel is standing for a fourth term.

Sitting in Correctiv’s tchotchke-filled office, Mr Schraven checks the facts of a story that has gone viral about refugees who allegedly raped a German woman and threw her out of a car window. It was originally published by a website called “Rape-fugees”.

Such stories have become more common recently in Germany, where Ms Merkel’s open-arms policy towards Syrian refugees — part of the more than 1m refugees the country has admitted since 2015 — remains a divisive political issue. “People are starting to say: we need to get these refugees out, we need a clean country. I’ve seen the mood change in my own town because of these news stories,” he says. “I think [fake news] could have a big impact on German elections.”

Germany’s Angela Merkel has a selfie taken with a migrant at a refugee camp in Berlin © Reuters

After confirming that the refugee story is untrue, he flags it to Facebook, which then alerts its users that it has been disputed by a fact-checker.

Correctiv’s fact-checking is just one part of Facebook’s evolving response to a series of controversies that have shaken the company over the past year. The social media group has been accused of influencing the US presidential election by turbo-charging the spread of fake news stories and creating “filter bubbles” that isolate voters from other opinions.

Facebook’s video platform has also been criticised after some grisly episodes, including the recent video of a murder in Ohio that stayed up for two hours after being flagged by users and a recording of a Thai man killing his baby daughter that took 24 hours to remove.

The outcry has raised deeper questions about the nature of Facebook and its social responsibilities. Throughout its 13-year rise to 1.9bn users and a commanding share of the digital advertising market, the group has maintained that it is a “neutral technology platform” with very limited responsibility for the content it hosts. Its only social obligation, it has maintained, is to be a conduit for connecting people.

But over the past year, it has been harder for the company to maintain this argument.

After President Barack Obama complained about the “dust cloud of nonsense” on the social network before the election, Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook founder and chief executive, appeared to play down the site’s power to influence politics. It was a “pretty crazy idea”, he said, to say that fake news articles on the site before the November election, such as one saying that Pope Francis had endorsed Donald Trump, had influenced the outcome.

His stance drew criticism, including from within the group’s Silicon Valley headquarters, and Mr Zuckerberg rethought his position. Facebook then launched several initiatives, including partnering with fact-checkers such as Correctiv, to try to stop the spread of fake news on the site. In February, he set out a vision for the company in a 5,700-word letter, where he acknowledged Facebook’s influence and responsibilities in a way that he had never done before. The manifesto pledged to address what he saw as a “fracturing global community”.

But critics say the company has not gone far enough to recognise a simple fact: it is a media company. As the world’s largest disseminator of news, they say, Facebook should adopt editorial standards that reflect its power.

“For a long time they have resisted actively being called a media organisation because it implies they might be regulated as one, and expected to generate public good,” says Philip Howard, professor of internet studies and director of research at the Oxford Internet Institute. “I think they have to be publicly audited and they should be taking some editorial role.”

European politicians and regulators are looking closely at how Facebook operates. Andrus Ansip, the European commissioner who leads the digital media portfolio, told the Financial Times in January that recent events could be a “turning point” for online platforms that risked losing trust unless they took greater responsibility.

“I am worried, as all people are worried, about fake news, especially after the elections in the United States,” Mr Ansip said in January. “I really believe in self-regulatory measures but if some kind of clarifications are needed then we will be ready for that.”

Facebook has resisted calls for hiring an editorial director or taking other steps that would make it more like a traditional news organisation. Instead, it is tweaking its technology to stop the spread of misinformation, and offering to pay fact-checkers to ensure the veracity of stories on the platform.

Facebook has provided online tips for spotting fake news © PA

“A commercial relationship is something that’s on the table and that we are very open to,” Adam Mosseri, head of Facebook’s news feed, told the Financial Times last month. “It could depend on individual organisations, but we want to engage responsibly and if that means a financial arrangement, we are very open to it.”

In the weeks after the US election, the group appeared to take more responsibility for its role in shaping the news agenda. It began working with American fact-checkers such as Snopes and Politifact, later expanding to Germany and France, where it worked with Le Monde and other local media, ahead of their national elections. Mr Schraven’s partnership with Facebook Germany began in March, when Correctiv’s team began to trawl through the new fact-checking system.

The Correctiv system starts with users reporting a story as false. Once it is flagged, it appears on a list of links for Correctiv to check. Each story is ranked by how popular it is on Facebook; a barometer shows how many actions, comments, shares or likes each story has received to help fact-checkers prioritise their work. Every checked story has a flag attesting to its veracity. If it is false, a link to an alternative, factual version is included.

“You can still read both versions of the story but when you want to share it — and this is the most important thing — you will be warned that independent fact-checkers do not think it is trustworthy,” says Mr Schraven.

These efforts, along with Mr Zuckerberg’s letter, reflect an effort by Facebook to head off a potential rebellion by its users — or an uprising from lawmakers, such as those in Germany pursuing fines for fake news.

“Zuck is by no means an asshole but he’s aware that he could start to be seen that way and he wants to pre-empt it,” says David Kirkpatrick, author of The Facebook Effect.

But the more Facebook becomes involved in policing content on its services, the greater the risk that it will alienate users or potential advertisers.

“No one at Facebook has ever admitted they are a media company, because that will have an impact on how they are treated in US law,” says Prof Howard. “If they are considered a media company and are taking money for placement of advertisements, then they are responsible for truth in advertising and have to dedicate budget to public service ads, like all other media companies do.”

With the group’s profits reaching $10bn last year and the stock up 30 per cent this year, the recent controversies have had little impact on investor sentiment. “Investors are not necessarily social critics,” says Brian Wieser, an analyst at Pivotal research.

Facebook users spend an average of 50 minutes a day using its apps, Facebook, Instagram and Facebook Messenger. But what if efforts to expose people to other political views result in lower engagement? The group’s algorithm is designed to keep users on the site so it can show them more advertising. But that does not necessarily fit with its new aspirations to help readers find an accurate source of information.

“What [are] the commercial consequences? How much is he willing to sacrifice revenue in order to solve the problem? That is the fundamental question he does not address,” says Mr Kirkpatrick.

Ultimately, Facebook’s decisions on what to show people in their news feeds are opaque and, even with the best intentions, may not represent its amorphous constituency of 2bn users with different nationalities, ages and cultural norms. “The elephant in the room is that Facebook unilaterally gets to decide this in the end,” says Zeynep Tufekci, associate professor at the University of North Carolina who studies the effect of technology on society.

In April, Facebook launched a $14m project aimed at improving the integrity of news online. It also launched an educational tool to help spot false news on Facebook, via a list of 10 tips. But some find these measures to be superficial.

“I find the suite of things Facebook is doing to make amends largely cosmetic, and they tend to prefer ideas that put costs on to other organizations. Why should the public bear the costs of doing fact checking on Facebook?” says Prof Howard.

Back in Correctiv’s Berlin office, Mr Schraven is adamant that there should be no financial relationship between his company and Facebook. “If Facebook starts paying you, then you are dependent. When you’re in such a situation, they can tell you what to do, and when you’re working as a fact-checker you need to work independently.”

Despite his concerns about his relationship with Facebook, Mr Schraven believes the company is taking its role as an arbiter of quality news seriously.

“Facebook is powerful because trust in a friendship is stronger than trust in a brand like a newspaper,” he says. “For us the most important thing is to address a problem that is difficult for society to handle. This is our aim. And we’ll put our resources wherever it’s necessary.”

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