At the UN, Colin Powell holds a model vial of anthrax, while arguing that Iraq is likely to possess WMDs, 2003. Wikicommons/ United States Government. Some rights reserved.
Last week, Facebook made a significant intervention into the debate around ‘fake news’, trialling a new feature (for now, just in the US) which both alerts users when an article they are trying to share has been disputed by fact checkers, and appends a disclaimer if the user decides to share it.
This is a significant escalation from Facebook’s previous response to the issue, a community-led reporting feature which was widely praised as an example of responsible practice by a tech company. So far, the new feature has not received much scrutiny from the digital rights community. It should; the implications are troubling.
Before we go into why, it’s useful to think first about where the concept of fake news comes from. The phrase came to prominence in the context of the US election, as part of a broader story of Russian interference. Fears over Russia have continued to frame the debate in the US – see the (now debunked) PropOrNot list, and the recently introduced bill to investigate RT America – but fake news has since become a global phenomenon.
Despite this, pinning down what fake news actually refers to can be difficult. In December last year, Hillary Clinton memorably described an “epidemic of malicious fake news and false propaganda”, a confusing elision of different types of media which points to a wider definitional instability. Anything and everything can now be described as ‘fake news’, whether that’s polls, the entire media, or even individual people. Acknowledging this, one of the producers behind the recent CBS 60 Minutes special on fake news took pains to clarify that the programme’s focus was “not the ‘fake news’ that is invoked by politicians against the media for stories that they don’t like”, but rather “stories that are provably false, have enormous traction in the culture, and are consumed by millions of people.”
What is only hinted at in this formulation (with the phrase ‘enormous traction’) is the role of the digital environment – and social media in particular – which is often posited as the key driver of fake news and the related phenomenon of ‘post-truth politics’. In a Guardian interview on this topic, the editor of Snopes – one of the four fact-checking outfits which will power Facebook’s new tool – described social media in terms of an “opening of the sluice-gate”; “the bilge”, as he put it, “keeps coming faster than you can pump.” Like Clinton’s description of an “epidemic of malicious fake news”, social media is presented here as uncontrollable, riddled with infection — and toxic.
If only we could close the gates again! Before social networks, so the story goes, news – at least in open media markets like the US – was real and authoritative, based on fact rather than hysteria. “We all know that politicians have lied before,” an op-ed in The Humanist acknowledged in 2015, “Yet I sense a shift in the landscape of post-truth America. We’ve crossed some kind of frontier.”
When considering these arguments, it is important to remember that in 2003, several years before the advent of Facebook, virtually every US newspaper, including the New York Times and the Washington Post, published articles vouching for the existence of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq – claims which were later comprehensively debunked. Does this qualify as fake news? If not – why not?
When is a fact checker a fake?
Activists rally in Bryant Park in New York prior to marching to the New York Times building in midtown Manhattan on Saturday, March 25, 2017. Richard B. Levine/SIPA USA/PA Images. All rights reserved.
To be clear, I am not trying to argue that the digital environment cannot, in some cases, exacerbate the spread of misinformation, or facilitate its transmission. The internet’s radical empowerment of freedom of expression and access to information, while overwhelmingly positive for democracy and participation, also of course carries the potential for abuse. Facebook and other businesses have a role in making sure that their platforms are secure, healthy spaces for debate, freedom of expression and assembly. This requires thoughtful product design and user policies, which may include measures to deal with deliberate misinformation.
But there are clear problems with the approach Facebook is currently trialling. First of all, its very premise — that it is possible to unproblematically assess the veracity of news using fact checkers – does not stand up to any scrutiny. Fact checkers are not themselves immune to accusations of partisan bias. And even if they were, an obvious philosophical problem remains: is there even such a thing as objective truth? What we understand as fact is inextricable from questions of power, representation, geography and time. It’s important to remember, when considering the implementation of a fake news filter on the world’s largest communications platform, that people used to think the earth was flat, and doctors used to recommend smoking to patients.
To some this might seem like an academic, abstract problem, especially since most of the articles affected by Facebook’s filter would probably be egregious and offensive – like the article used in the feature’s US trial, which claims Irish people were brought to America as slaves.
But consider how a fake news filter might shape the way a user experiences their timeline; if, for instance, one in every ten articles were to appear with a disclaimer. Perhaps this would discourage that user from reading, or sharing, an inaccurate story; or would give them, at least, a more critical framework through which to assess it. Undoubtedly this is the outcome that Facebook would like to see.
But what about the stories which aren’t flagged up by the fact checkers? Mistakes – whether minor or serious – are not uncommon, even among highly respected media organisations, and are often only discovered after publication; the Washington Post, for example, had to quietly qualify or withdraw two of its biggest stories last year. A fact checker would be of little use here. Indeed, the silence of Facebook’s fact-checking feature on a given article could even subconsciously encourage a user to let their guard down when reading it, and suspend their critical faculties. It is hard to see how this would improve or enrich political and intellectual culture.
Fake news, and the anxieties and structural problems for which it serves as a proxy, isn’t going anywhere. Facebook’s initiative is just one of many in the pipeline; in Germany, a draft law currently under consideration would impose fines of up to €50 million on platforms found to host fake news; while Factmata, a Google-backed startup, aims to apply a Facebook-style fact-checking system to search engines.
Developing a critical faculty
It’s beyond the scope of this article, brief and speculative as it is, to offer solutions, other than to suggest that, rather than seeking a silver bullet, we need a more holistic view of the phenomenon – one which centres the critical faculties of people, and attends to the structural factors which make people turn to ‘fake news’ in the first place.
A recent statement by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), suggesting schools should teach children how to spot fake news in schools, potentially offers a useful starting point, and warrants further discussion. The Democracy Fund’s announcement of a $1 million fund to tackle misinformation is also welcome, particularly in its acknowledgement that a range of solutions – including stronger independent media organisations – is going to be needed.
Above all, we need a much broader conversation on this issue. All of us – businesses, civil society, media organisations and technical communities – have a role to play in this debate. It would be unwise to leave it just to the fact checkers.
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