Combating Fake News With a Human Touch

The familiar adage “Everything old is new again” was on my mind as I enjoyed one of my beach reads this summer, How to Lie With Statistics, by Darrell Huff. In a TED talk, Bill Gates said that Huff “shows you how visuals can be used to exaggerate trends and give distorted comparisons.” I assumed it was a hot-off-the-press response to the current fixation with fake news and erroneous data. However, the copyright page says Huff first shared these tips and tricks back in 1954. The book offers several examples of how the same factual data can be presented to give completely different impressions without falsifying any numbers. This is timely, considering the suspect infographics and charts that populate our newsfeeds on Facebook and Twitter.

How did we arrive in this era of fake news? In some ways, it is not new. In June 1993, Weekly World News ran the headline “Hillary Clinton Adopts Alien Baby.” Now, it seems that equally ridiculous news stories once resulting in an eye roll have the ability to seriously influence events—or even lead to violence, such as with “Pizzagate.” Statistics have shown that the top 20 fake election stories of 2016 on Facebook were shared, Liked, or commented on 8.7 million times. Additionally, six out of nine users shared articles without clicking on them first.

Although Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg has said it was “pretty crazy” to suggest that Facebook could have influenced the election, he backpedaled, issuing a statement that Facebook has a “greater responsibility” than that of a simple technology platform. The company has developed a fact-checking network by partnering with media organizations that have committed to a list of ethics issued by the Poynter Institute. When users label stories as fake or misleading, Facebook’s third-party fact-checkers investigate the claims and label and demote the stories accordingly. Facebook is also crowdsourcing this effort by allowing users to tag content which Facebook will then investigate further. These efforts fall short, however, when fake news goes viral. By the time Facebook’s fact-checkers complete their investigations, erroneous content and data can take on a life of their own. 

Additionally, Facebook launched The Facebook Journalism Project, which, according to WIRED, is “designed to set up ‘deeper collaboration’ with news organizations, introduce new platforms for telling stories, develop local news, and train journalists and everyday users on finding and trusting news.” This prompted the creation of new positions at Facebook (head of news partnerships and other jobs requiring skills in both technology and journalism). This signals an opportunity for all of us.

Facebook has always claimed that it did not want to become a media company, but fake news has forced its hand. Facebook is also disabling the ability of pages to edit link previews. According to TechCrunch, this editing allowed pages to “change the headline, body text and image that appeared in the News Feed preview,” which was a very easy way to spread fake news.

Google has also responded to allegations of fake news and erroneous information appearing in search result lists. Google’s Fact Check is a labeling system that uses an algorithm to look for news articles that fact-check certain statements and declarations. When the algorithm locates a fact-checking article, the article is linked to the corresponding search result. However, if several fact-checking articles contradict themselves, the algorithm does not determine which one is correct. Therefore, search results could have conflicting information. There is also the possibility that the fact-checked article is wrong or an article that’s written to deliberately mislead will be tagged. 

An overreliance on technology without consideration for context, source reliability, and transparency of methodology are the primary reasons for the rise of fake news and the acceptance of “alternative facts.” If we temper reliance on Big Data, algorithms, and artificial intelligence (AI) and employ critical thinking and evaluation skills, it is possible to create an information dragnet. To quote an old TV show, “Just the facts ma’am.”    

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