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Has Facebook finally recognised that it's a media company?


via Flickr © Robert Scoble (CC BY 2.0)

  • After years of claiming impotence over fake news, Facebook acts...
  • Is trialing a new system in Germany to flag up stories considered false
  • But users will still be able to read and even share them..

Trump’s election has understandably created a great deal of concern about so-called ‘fake news’ distributed via social media and its ability to (perhaps) swing an electorate one way or the other - as it appears to have done in the US.

Concern is particularly pronounced in Germany which has an anti-immigrant populist right wing and important elections coming up.

Could a hearty round of fake news (is Angela Merkel actually a Muslim? Has she been secretly funding ISIS?) result in an electoral upset in Germany?  German legislators are not the sort to sit back to wait and find out, so last month in the wake of the US election, they announced plans to introduce a bill that could fine Facebook (or any other social media publisher) up to €500, 000 for not pulling demonstrably ‘fake’ news stories with enough alacrity. So far, so expected.

But instead of its usual “mumble, mumble first amendment, cough, cough technically difficult, we’ll get users to flag up offenders” routine, Facebook seems to have galvanised itself.

This weekend the Financial Times broke the story that Facebook is to test a ‘fake news’ filtering system in Germany.

Last year, when Facebook was taking flak for letting through so-called ‘click-bait’ (a close relative of ‘fake news’ where the intention is just to get the click for the headline, rather than propagate a falsehood in the accompanying story) it said it was going to adopt an algorithmic filter to solve the clickbait problem. Facebook said it would identify these sorts of headlines: “When She Looked Under Her Couch Cushions And Saw THIS… I Was SHOCKED!”; “He Put Garlic In His Shoes Before Going To Bed And What Happens Next Is Hard To Believe”.

Then it would engineer a filtering system so that the sources for stories sporting clickbait style headlines were progressively downgraded in the News Feed.  If the offending pages or domains upped their game and trimmed back on the misleading material, they would find their postings climbing up the feed again. This technique, it explained, owed much to spam filters which attempted a similar juggling act.

So far I can’t say I’ve noticed any lessening of click bait on Facebook myself - perhaps it has yet to be deployed.

Still, perhaps stiffened in its resolve by the German government’s plans to fine it €500,000 per falsie, Facebook might find a new level of urgency in its efforts to tackle false news - and some effective techniques.

It says that German Facebookers will be able  to report any story  in their news feed they suspect is fake. Facebook will then send that story to Correctiv, a German fact-checking non-profit organization that’s signed up to Poynter’s International Fact Checking Code of Principles.

If Correctiv decides a story is  fake, it will get flagged and de-prioritized and users will be directed to an explanation as to why it’s been judged fake

Facebook believes that it is striking a reasonable balance between censorship and effective filtering. It says that people can still decide for  themselves what to believe and what information to share and they can still read and share an item flagged as fake - it’s just that a warning will go with it.

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