No, scientists haven't found a proof for the existence of Santa Claus and an entire town in Texas was never quarantined because of an Ebola scare. But that hasn't stopped stories like those spreading far and wide, thanks to their catching on in Facebook's News Feed -- which is why the social networking site now asks users to flag fake news.
Facebook software engineer Erich Owens and research scientist Udi Weinsberg announced the new feature Tuesday in a blog post in the "newsroom" area of Facebook's Web site. By clicking on a News Feed item, Facebook users now will be able to report a story as false news; if enough people identify a story as fake or deceitful, Facebook will reduce the item's distribution.
"We are not removing stories people report as false and we are not reviewing content and making a determination on its accuracy," Owens and Weinsberg write. However, posts that receive a high number of reports for being fake will be highlighted with a message stating, "Many people on Facebook have reported that this story contains false information."
Real, Satire or Malicious?
As Josh Dzieza reported in an article in The Verge last October, Facebook has become "the major vector" for fake news stories from disreputable sites looking for clicks that boost their ad revenues. That included not only silly news stories such as the Santa Claus science report, but far more serious hoaxes with much greater potential for damaging repercussions.
Fake stories about Ebola, for example, proved "the perfect subject for these sites," Dzieza wrote. "Aid workers in Africa dealing with the actual Ebola crisis have also had to contend with dangerous rumors -- that Ebola itself is a hoax, that it's a Western plot, that aid workers will kill anyone infected. Here in the States there is less to fear, but plenty of media ready to capitalize on it, whether through deliberately deceptive 'satire' sites or irresponsible misinterpretations of science."
Facebook has also found itself having to contend with items from well-known satire sites such as The Onion circulating as "real" news on the social network. In fact, it made headlines last year when reports emerged that it was testing a "satire" button to clearly identify intentionally fake news.
Needs Monitoring for Abuse
We reached out to Craig Silverman, founder and editor of the real-time rumor tracker Emergent, to get his take on Facebook's effort to filter real news from fake. Emergent, with the help of the Tow Center for Digital Journalism at Columbia University, is part of a research project on how unverified information spreads through the media.
"I think this is a step in the right direction," Silverman told us via e-mail. "It first of all serves as a warning to the operators of these sites that Facebook is paying attention and taking action. That alone may dissuade people from launching new fake news sites."
Silverman added: "The question of course is how many people will know they can flag a post in this way, and how many will actually do it. I think there needs to be an effort made to educate people about this feature. I also hope Facebook will monitor whether some people or organizations try to abuse this by encouraging contacts to flag content that they disagree with, rather than content that is actually false."