The post-election furor surrounding Facebook’s fake-news problem has sparked new initiatives to halt the provision of ads to sites that peddle false information. But it’s only a partial solution to the problem: for now, hoaxes and fabricated stories will continue to appear in feeds.
Facebook, rattled by widespread concerns that fake news appearing in its feeds skewed the election, has said it will ban such sites from using its advertising network. The block will mean that third-party sites that peddle fallacious content will no longer be able to make money hosting ads provided by the Facebook Audience Network.
Google has made a similar decision, saying that it “will restrict ad serving on pages that misrepresent, misstate, or conceal information about the publisher, the publisher’s content, or the primary purpose.” That was no doubt spurred by the fact that it, too, came under criticism for including fake election news in its search results.
Both schemes will make it harder for fake-news sites to bring in revenue. In theory, that might remove the incentive to publish false stories, since the content appears to come from Macedonian teenagers looking to make a quick buck.
But neither tactic will immediately stop fake news from appearing in Google searches or Facebook news feeds. And many Facebook users are clearly rather partial to fake news, so other outlets may take it upon themselves to create fake content to sway public opinion, with little concern about making money.
To that point, a Gizmodo report alleges that Facebook has already developed tools to prevent fake news from appearing in feeds but chose not to implement them. A source from the company claims that decision was made based upon “fear about upsetting conservatives” in the wake of stories that circulated earlier this year suggesting editors of Facebook’s Trending section had a liberal bias. Facebook has denied the accusations.
It seems unlikely that Facebook has a total solution to the problem, though. Even if it were to come up with a way to reliably distinguish fake content from the truth, it’s not clear where censorship should start and stop. Is a person allowed to post untruths in a status update, but a website not allowed to lie in an article posted to the site? What about satire?
Clearly Facebook needs to do something to address the issue of misinformation, and it’s making a start. But the ultimate solution is probably more significant, and rather more complex, than a simple ad ban.