Facebook emerged during the US election as a central political and news source, but also a hub for hoaxes, propaganda, and outright fake news — an issue that brought wide criticism and concern from figures reportedly including President Barack Obama.
But its leading US competitor, Snap (formerly Snapchat), has managed to sidestep the issue. Snap now boasts 150 million daily users, roughly 10 million more than Twitter. It’s a growing source of breaking news for its users. When Donald Trump purchased a national “Crooked Hillary” geo-filter during the presidential debates, it was viewed 80 million times, and yet the sometimes controversial social network doesn’t come up in the rancorous debates over fake news.
There are a handful of obvious reasons why Snapchat might be a less fertile ground for propaganda from Macedonian teens, hoax purveyors, or hyperpartisan websites masquerading as news. User-generated content on Snapchat disappears after a short period of time. News is contained in a separate section, called Discover. Posts from the people you follow are displayed chronologically, not by popularity or personalized algorithm.
On Snapchat, the name of the game is projecting authenticity, not racking up faves, and the rules of the game are enforced in the way the app is designed. Snapchat profiles do not display a follower count or even let users know how many followers they have. Plus, it’s hard to go viral when you can’t pass around a link to an individual’s post.
As Farhad Manjoo noted in the New York Times, “The diminution of personalization algorithms and virality also plays into how Snapchat treats news.”
The process publishers go through to get on Discover is as controlled as the rest of the app and involves a number of human gatekeepers along the way, a Snap representative told BuzzFeed News. Before they can post in Discover, news publishers have to be vetted as a potential partner, an agreement that comes with strict terms. Discover partners who publish daily on Snapchat in the US, France, and UK include recognizable names like CNN, MTV, Le Monde, Sky News, and Cosmopolitan. Jim VandeHei, the co-founder of Politico, even created a presidential campaign-specific Discover channel called We the People, in partnership with NowThisNews, but content, like today's offering, "Are you ready for texts from Trump?" seems more pop culture than partisan. (NowThisNews shares an investor with BuzzFeed. BuzzFeed is a Discover partner in both the US and UK; BuzzFeed also ran NBC's Snapchat content during the summer Olympics.)
Although publishers have editorial independence, there is collaboration between staffers who produce content for the app and Snapchat’s Discover team, which gives guidance on formatting. Content can be optimized to do well on Facebook and Twitter by altering the headline or image, but on Snapchat, articles have to be reformatted to fit the app. Publishers can deep-link to stories to their Discover content, but those links take you back to the app.
These features were built around Snap’s belief that users who share and consume content from friends provide the most potential for long-term growth, Rob Fishman, co-founder of Niche, a company that connects brands with social media influencers, told BuzzFeed News. “Snapchat makes discovery of people who aren’t in your phone book extremely difficult because they believe peer-to-peer sharing is stickier than a so-called influencer model,” said Fishman, whose company was acquired by Twitter in 2015. “They do see value in premium and traditional publishers, but they’ve created a stand-alone experience to capture that kind of content.”
"It’s impossible for somebody to go rogue in Discover."
This is a huge difference from other social networks, where publishers and brands are “basically identical to individual users,” Fishman said. “It’s impossible for somebody to go rogue in Discover because everything in there is seen and vetted by Snapchat.”
The same kind of propaganda that plagued Facebook could theoretically be disseminated within Snapchat in a couple of ways: through a Live Story (a mashup of photos and videos around a particular event like a concert or rally, curated by Snapchat) or a Story from individual accounts, which users can create by adding photos or videos of what they’re doing throughout the day. In those cases, however, a combination of human editors, the visual medium, and anti-viral design also make it inhospitable to fake news.
Individual Snapchat users can add text to an image or video, but space is limited. It’s possible to imagine a scenario where an individual uses their Story like a talk radio, but that kind of content is hard to share and Snapchat doesn’t promote individual accounts. “You literally don’t know how many followers you have on Snapchat, so it’s not designed for premium accounts to amass huge audiences. This is supposed to be million paper cuts, not a few heavy hitters,” said Fishman.
For Live Stories, which show up in Discover, Snapchat relies on human journalists and editors, with relevant experience in verticals like music, entertainment, travel, or fashion, the company said. Last year, Snap hired Peter Hamby, one of CNN’s best known political reporters, as its head of news. Live Stories created in-house are rigorously fact-checked, a Snap representative told BuzzFeed. In the spring of 2015, Snap started covering politics along with other hard news. Live Stories in that category include coverage of US election coverage, historic flooding in South Carolina, the Brexit vote in the UK, and the Brazil impeachment vote. Hard news stories are produced in-house. Some Live Stories are comprised of photos and videos from Snapchat users, but again, the content is curated by Snapchat and goes through a human editor first.
Apple News, the mobile app released last year that has 70 million active users and content from 4,000 publications, is another potential platform for spreading fake news, which, like Snapchat, also relies on human touch points along the way. Apple News became a significant driver of traffic during the election cycle in particular. CNN has reported that Apple News sent 36.5 million unique readers their way in September, and Bloomberg reported a 400% jump in visitors from Apple News in October. In fact, sources told BuzzFeed News that Apple News has had to deal with a pretty significant number of attempts to spread fake news and hate speech through the platform.
However, the same walled-garden approach that keeps iTunes and the App Store running smoothly has worked in Apple News. For example, Apple News reviews publishers who join Apple News. Individuals can also share content on Apple News, but if their RSS feed departs from the usual fare, Apple can detect that. There’s also a report-a-concern function where users can flag fake news or hate speech within Apple News, and the company curates any content that gets featured, also like the App Store.
Manjoo’s recent profile of Snap in the Times emphasized that favoring human editors and eschewing virality represented a big departure from more established social networks. Fishman pointed out that those innovations are also carefully managed. “In my opinion Snapchat is both ambitiously experimental but also very tightly controlled,” Fishman said, pointing to the introduction of Stories and of Spectacles. “Both were dramatic and unprecedented offerings, but the way that they launched them was very carefully planned and executed. You can see that especially with Spectacles. There’s a lot of buzz around it and there are only a few pairs.”