As Germany and France move towards elections in 2017, pressure has been mounting on tech giants such as Google and Facebook to tackle the challenge of fake news. But in the age of highly politicized news cycles the question everyone is asking is how can truth be safely separated from fiction without censoring genuine alternative news sources?
In the first part of our investigation we looked at the history of fake news and discovered that this is not a new problem. We also examined the fake news economy that has arisen as digital communication fostered a more fragmented media landscape.
The Facebook and Google approach
After a contentious 2016 US election, Facebook faced strong criticism for not better policing the torrent of fake news articles that were circulated on its platform. Chief executive Mark Zuckerberg had long insisted that Facebook was not a media publisher, but rather a technology company, and users were primarily responsible for the content that was spread over the platform. But by late 2016, the problem was too great to ignore and Facebook announced a raft of measures to tackle the spread of misinformation.
Zuckerberg was careful in stating that “we don’t want to be arbiters of truth,” before laying out a series of protocols that were being developed. These included disrupting the economics of fake news websites by blocking ad sales to disputed sites, and bringing in a third-party verification process to label certain articles as false or disputed.
From early 2017, Facebook began testing these new measures in the US and rolling them out more widely across Germany and France. Users will be able to flag articles that are suspected as fake news, which would forward the story to a third-party fact checking organization that would evaluate the accuracy of the piece. If the story is identified as fake it will be noticeably flagged as “Disputed by 3rd Party Fact-Checkers” and users will see a warning before they choose to share the story further.
Google has also launched an initiative dubbed “CrossCheck,” which will initially run in France across early 2017 in the lead up to the country’s presidential election. CrossCheck partners with a number of French news organizations with a view on fact checking articles that users submit that are believed to be false. Much like Facebook’s plan, articles that are deemed false by at least two independent news organizations will be flagged as fake news in users’ feeds.
It’s up to all of us
In a conversation with Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey on December 2016, controversial whistleblower Edward Snowden worried that these attempts by technology platforms to classify the truthfulness of content could lead to censorship.
“The problem of fake news isn’t solved by hoping for a referee,” Snowden said. “We have to exercise and spread the idea that critical thinking matters now more than ever, given the fact that lies seem to be getting very popular.”
Regardless of our political leanings, we all need to approach information with a critical and engaged perspective. The issue of fake news is not necessarily a partisan one. In addition to fake news peddlers who are purley profit driven, recent reports have signaled that fake news has begun to skew more left with President Trump in power and liberals are to blame for perpetuating the spread of misinformation as well as conservatives.
Critical thinking is an apolitical act and ultimately we are all responsible for the information we consume and share.
Fake news has existed as long as people have told stories, but with the internet dramatically democratizing the nature of information transmission, now more than ever, the onus is on all of us to become smarter, more skeptical and more critical.