Ally Naumova

Facebook Hoaxes and How To Avoid Them

August 16, 2017

The Hoaxes

We’ve all seen hoax and scam stories, rumours and outright nonsense of all kinds on our Facebook news feeds. The sensational headlines, the spectacle, the scary virus and hacker warnings. There are many cases of identity forging as well, where internet scammers use the platform as a means of establishing a connection with potential victims.

Digging into the subject, there is a lot of controversy and speculation as to why hoaxes, scams and viruses still spread as effectively as fungus across the whole platform, misinforming its billion users worldwide, including you and me. And this is amplified by the fact that Facebook’s software is specifically optimised to enhance user engagement by prioritising those compelling posts that enjoy the most attention. Which is exactly what hoaxes are designed to do.

So what is Facebook doing?

Surely, you’d think, as all of us have, Facebook’s most advanced machine-learning software and algorithms on the planet, could have countered that already. However, as a number of Facebook’s representatives have mentioned, the very purpose of the news feed is to feature what is most interesting to a particular user, regardless of what that may be. It's none of Facebook’s business. Mark Zuckerberg himself wrote that the tech-company would not want to be a self-appointed authority, arbitrating truth and false, or prioritising one point of view over another, on a platform serving the world in its entirety (TheVerge 2016).

That said, Facebook cannot completely ignore hoaxes, denying all responsibility for what is shared across the platform. Pornography might be someone’s interest, however, this is still censored. How are hoaxes any different then, you’d ask? Especially bearing in mind Facebook's high-profile campaign in recent years to prioritise “high-quality content” in news feeds.

Hoaxes, however, remain an issue, and Facebook remains uninterested in countering them, as not enough people have reported dissatisfaction with misleading and/or false information. The only thing the platform has actually done in this direction is to reduce “clickbaits” (stories that are true to an extent, but presented in an unpleasant way) through algorithmic machine-learning filtering of keywords, as well as asking users to report it.

Facebook even argues that “any move to reduce the spread of fake stories on Facebook would disproportionately affect conservative news stories, because conservative news sources publish more fake stories” (TheVerge 2016).

The sad truth is that even intelligent people get mislead by false articles, which their friends have liked and/or shared – especially when such falsies appear right along legitimate news.

What is even more sad is that Facebook is allegedly the most influential media platform in the world - more and more people get their news from Facebook nowadays, instead of bothering to consult established news sources.

And this has gone so far as to Facebook being widely criticised for disseminating misinformation on the US presidential election and thereby positively influencing Donald Trump’s election.

Debunk hoaxes yourself

Now, regardless of who is right or wrong and what is Facebook doing or not, there are a few ways you can debunk hoaxes yourself.

There are quite a few websites, which have taken on the noble mission of discerning fact from fiction. These are independent websites that research and list all of the most recent hoaxes, with an archive of older ones, so you can easily do your fact-checking on there. If you suspect something is a hoax, simply go on one of these websites.

One, for example, is Snopes. There are many others, such as Hoax-Slayer and ThatsNonsense, to name a few. Most of these have also their own Facebook page, so you could also visit them to see which are the most recent hoaxes circling around. ‘FaceCrooks’ and ‘Hoaxes on fb’ are also Facebook pages worth checking. Many users themselves make an attempt at warning the public of hoaxes as well.

So there is quite a lot out there to keep you in the light.

Ultimately, however, it is our fault and the Factmata startup is set to help

And while we're on machine-learning algorithms and artificial intelligenCe (AI), there is something particularly amazing emerging on the horizon to aid our fact-checking attempts and to incite critical thinking and responsible media consumption. The London-based start-up Factmata is on its way of developing a new automated fact-checking tool.

What the start-up is trying to counter is people's own irresponsibility in news consumption and tendency to blame social media channels, such as Facebook, for misinforming the public. Social media platforms have suddenly become an extremely fruitful ground for fake news - the latter are extremely shareable and when you 'Like' something, the platform provides you more of similar content.

However, as Factmata's CEO, Dhruv Ghulati mentions, "every part of the chain - from journalists to politicians, platforms to media organisations - needs to improve to combat fake news. However, the responsibility ultimately lies with us, the users" (TheNextWeb 2017). And the start-up, being backed by the Google Digital News Initiative, might really be a game changer.

It will make you doubt

Now, the real issue is that we're lazy: often it’s too much work to look for additional information and consult more sources to form an informed opinion on a subject. So what Factmata is doing is to simply add an additional layer of data on top of news claims. Thereby, you as a reader would have to employ some critical thinking and personal responsibility in consuming the news piece you're reading. While you're on your article, Factmata's tool would provide additional actual data on the topic, in the form of charts, tables and such like, which would enable you to ensure validity (TheNextWeb 2017).

The startup will be gathering all the data, which is not particularly accessible to the average user, to incorporate in its engaging Google DNI project, for users to effectively fact-check. You will wonder, especially if the two layers of data are differing, where is the truth, exactly. And what's even more important - no more of our precious time and effort would be spent on actual researching for facts - it will all be there for us, on that very same article page.

Fake news would still be there. But we will be forced to consume content critically and empowered to know more than what the article or page we've been lured to click on tells us.

To do all this, Factmata will be employing both AI and human review, with their initial core users being experienced expert fact-checkers and investigative journalists. The start-up’s ultimate goal is to democratise fact-checking so the tool is planned to allow for anyone to get involved in the verification process, providing users with facts and motivating them to raise their voice.

Much like a mini online Enlightenment era. Just that it's not mini at all. It's global.

Ghulati believes that "we need to give everyone the skills required to be discerning of content, to truly reduce fake news." (TheNextWeb 2017). And we say, cheers to that. Change certainly does have to come from within. We could expect the platform to be live by the end of 2018.

And to wrap up...

It’s good to know that there are services out there designed to help us debunk fake and/or misleading information. Ultimately, though, we need to take responsibility: being objective and thinking critically when reading news is always a good idea.

Make sure you check the infographic above if you have to, until Factmata arrives.

Media is a powerful tool and we all see its daily influence on the world we live in. So we need to be vigilant. Just something to always keep in mind.

Sources: The Digital News Initiative; TheNextWeb 2017; TheVerge; Slate; Facebook; Snopes; Hoax-Slayer; ThatsNonsense
August 16, 2017

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