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Friday, December 02, 2016

Facebook’s Fake News Crisis and Social Media Echo Chambers

This week I wrapped up my Torts course with a discussion of products liability and the McDonald’s hot coffee case. We watched this clip, which noted that Stella Liebeck’s case became one of the most misreported tort stories of all time: news of the $2.9 million verdict went viral, facts were skewed, and Ms. Liebeck was villainized.

The hot coffee case happened in the 1990s, and I can only imagine the memes and fake headlines we would have seen on Facebook had the case happened today. This brings me to the 2016 election – the results of which left many people stunned by the seemingly unpredictable outcome. Social media may be to blame, at least in part, for two reasons. First, “fake news" has blurred the lines between entertainment, advertising, and real journalism. Second, our news feeds keep us from hearing diverse perspectives.

First, fake news is becoming harder to spot and control. Until two weeks ago, Facebook allowed fake news stories as sponsored content. These stories consist of made-up clickbait, dressed up to look like legit news. Fake-news generators would pay to have their content appear on Facebook because it brought more clicks and ad revenue. Rolling Stone reported this week about a comedian and fake-news creator who intended to troll Trump while making some cash in the process, thinking his stories were too ridiculous to fool anyone. New York Times interviewed a fake news creator in Tbilisi, Georgia who focused on anti-Clinton news, as it produced the most clicks. He also considered his work satire and not fake news. Certainly we as readers should use good judgment and be at least somewhat skeptical about what we read. But one recent study shows a disturbing inability to differentiate between real news and fake news, especially among younger people. The truth is, we are not sorting out fact from fiction very well online.

Second, news feed bias may have led us further astray.

About six months ago, the Wall Street Journal wrote about Facebook’s news feed bias and created an online tool showing the difference between red feeds and blue feeds. It seems obvious that Facebook’s algorithms would tailor content to fit what we already like. After all, Facebook only profits when we stay logged in and engaged. But studies show that many people are getting most of their news from social media these days, so the red feed / blue feed phenomenon may have created an echo chamber of unprecedented scale this past election cycle. 

Facebook and Google recently announced that they will crack down on fake news. And, according to some reports, Facebook is doing some serious soul searching about the role fake news and news feed bias may have played in this election. But by adjusting their own internal policies to combat fake news, these companies once again act as the Great Deciders, assigning to their paid staff or contractors the task of judging the veracity of specific posts. In an effort to promote truth, they will censor. And drawing the line between fake news, satire, and sloppy journalism is tricky.

I am looking forward to seeing future scholarship on these issues. Some scholars have already noted that market forces alone fail to weed out truth from fiction, but regulation of fake news poses difficult First Amendment challenges. We also need to be wary of attempts to chip away at the immunity for online intermediaries like Facebook and Google under Section 230 of the Communication Decency Act. Looking beyond these legal challenges, tech experts are also grappling with the fake news problem and have proposed some design-based solutions. 

But social media platforms – and all of us – must figure out how to deal with fake news and echo chambers. I personally recall the 1990s sensationalist headlines about the McDonald’s hot coffee case, and admit that I never thought critically beyond the skewed narrative at the time. And I'm pretty sure I clicked on that headline about the Pope endorsing Trump.

Posted by Agnieszka McPeak on December 2, 2016 at 09:45 AM in First Amendment, Information and Technology, Web/Tech | Permalink


So, the contention here is that if I write a story that say, "Hillary Clinton gave John Wilkes Booth the gun and told him to kill Lincoln," the only thing that makes that "fake" news is the white male power structure?

Posted by: YesterdayIKilledAMammoth | Dec 3, 2016 1:51:35 PM

I think what's truly problematic about this story is the blank assertion that some news is "fake" as opposed to "authentic." Truth is a societal construct largely determined by those in power - white, moralizing males. We need to produce our own news sources in order to fully combat the control these bourgeois capitalists have over the means of communication.

Posted by: Andres | Dec 3, 2016 12:26:10 PM

Doesn't Rolling Stone have something like a 20 year moratorium on journalistic ethics moralizing? Or did they get this story fact-checked by their Columbia Journalism School overseers?

Posted by: YesterdayIKilledAMammoth | Dec 3, 2016 9:11:13 AM

Somehow, Rick, criticism on this point from a propaganda site like RT doesn't make me feel better about the situation!

Posted by: Matt | Dec 2, 2016 11:06:59 PM

I find the purported concern of Rolling Stone magazine about "fake news" to be pretty funny, since it is responsible for one of the biggest fake news stories of the last couple of years - the supposed UVA fraternity rape hoax.

Posted by: MS61 | Dec 2, 2016 8:30:33 PM

I'm wondering if there isn't something a bit "fake" about the "fake news" story? https://www.rt.com/viral/368628-rolling-stone-washington-post-fake-news/ The "list" of sites that was going around certainly included many that are simply opinion pages/outlets. I'd be worried if, under the banner of purging "fake news", platforms like Facebook and Twitter simply started flagging or blocking opinion pieces with which they disagree.

Posted by: Rick Garnett | Dec 2, 2016 9:49:05 AM

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