SAN FRANCISCO — An existing team within Facebook is looking at how to solve the problem of fake news on its platform, and has increased efforts in recent weeks following public debate over how the spread of fake news on Facebook may have swayed voters during the US elections.
The team, which has existed for years and looks, more broadly, at Facebook's News Feed, is taking the problem seriously, according to one Facebook official who spoke to BuzzFeed News on background. The team is examining steps it can take to try and crack down on fake or misleading news in the wake of a public debate that saw President Obama comment this week that "if we can’t discriminate between serious arguments and propaganda, then we have problems.”
Facebook came under fire this week after CEO Mark Zuckerberg called the notion that fake news on Facebook affecting the election was “a pretty crazy idea.” The comment angered Facebook employees, five of whom came forward and told BuzzFeed News that they had formed a group to discuss the problems surrounding fake news. In the wake of that article, a Facebook engineer reached out to BuzzFeed and said that in addition to the rogue team formed by concerned employees, official efforts were also being made.
"Those guys, the team they have, have been looking at this for a long time, and I know recently its become a much bigger thing for them and a problem they are trying to solve," said the engineer, who spoke on condition of anonymity as he was not authorized to speak to press. "I think its important people know that a lot of people at Facebook take this seriously, and that, on an official level too, there are people trying to come up with a way to make it better."
The engineer added that over the last week, "many people across different departments at Facebook" had expressed an interest in joining the News Feed team. He said that several people were looking at a way to verify official news channels on the platform to try and distinguish them as a known source of news.
"People are upset, and some might be meeting on their own but others are reaching out and saying they want to volunteer and participate in how they can make the News Feed better," said the engineer, who added "lots of people at Facebook are embarrassed that all anyone is talking about right now is that Facebook let fake news ruin the elections."
A recent analysis by BuzzFeed News found that in the final three months of the US presidential campaign, the top fake election news stories on Facebook generated more total engagement than the top stories from 19 major news outlets combined, including the New York Times, Washington Post, Huffington Post, NBC News, and others. Meanwhile BuzzFeed News found that the three largest left-wing pages published false or misleading information in nearly 20% of posts, while the three biggest right-wing Facebook pages published it 38% of the time. The report concluded: “The best way to attract and grow an audience for political content on the world’s biggest social network is to eschew factual reporting and instead play to partisan biases using false or misleading information that simply tells people what they want to hear.”
The Facebook News Feed team had voiced concern about the presence of fake news stories on the platform prior to the election. In a January 2015 update, Facebook promised fewer fake news stories by giving users a tool to self-report fake stories on their feeds. In the nearly two years since, Facebook has refused to give reporters access to metrics showing how often fake news is reported and/or removed from their platform. And a BuzzFeed News report found that even when fake news was flagged on one Facebook page, it was simply moved to another.
"I think a lot of people are angry that it got this bad, and now there is a whole public storm about it," said the Facebook engineer. "I think now there is this energy and buzz around trying to fix it."
Facebook did not answer an official request for comment from BuzzFeed News.
Sheera Frenkel is a cybersecurity correspondent for BuzzFeed News based in San Francisco. She has reported from Israel, Egypt, Jordan and across the Middle East. Her secure PGP fingerprint is 4A53 A35C 06BE 5339 E9B6 D54E 73A6 0F6A E252 A50F
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