Earlier this week, Facebook hosted a group of reporters (myself included) at its NYC office for a Q&A session about its efforts to fight fake news. The event, led by Head of News Feed John Hegeman and News Feed product specialist Sara Su, began with Facebook showing us a short film called Facing Facts. It’s a documentary that debuted last May, which tells the story of the company’s uphill battle to rid its site of a misinformation plague that seems incurable. For months, Facebook has talked about how hard it is working to fix the issue (by hiring third-party fact-checkers, removing fake accounts and more), but on Wednesday it left us with more questions than answers. That’s because Facebook believes reducing and flagging fake news stories is better than removing them altogether, and that doesn’t seem like the best approach.
If Facebook wants to get serious about solving the spread of false information, particularly from publishers, it needs to take a stand and ban it completely. Both Hageman and Su said Facebook needs to be a platform for all ideas, and that it needs to protect free speech, therefore it can’t choose sides. Thing is, taking down stories or pages that promote conspiracies that have been debunked or hoaxes isn’t about taking political sides — it’s about acknowledging that there are facts and there are lies, and protecting people from the latter. Facebook believes “people can decide for themselves what to read, trust, and share.” And that, by flagging stories as false or lowering their ranking in the News Feed, they’re helping people make that decision. But that’s simply refusing to take responsibility for its own role in spreading the disease of fake news.
When asked by CNN reporter Oliver Darcy why the company allows InfoWars, an outlet that traffics in dangerous and frankly insane conspiracy theories, to have have a page and promote stories on Facebook, Hegeman said it was because the site has “not violated something that would result in them being taken down.” He added, “being false… doesn’t violate the community standards.” Again, Facebook’s argument here is that, if people see a story from InfoWars that may be false (like the one about the Democrats planning a second Civil War), it’s better to let them decide for themselves if they want to read it or not. Yes, if a piece of content is deemed as “false” by one of its fact-checkers it will be labeled as such, but why give it an audience at all?
The challenge for Facebook is that while it may be able to keep false stories out of its News Feed, it would be virtually impossible (and possibly illegal) to keep people from sharing links to them with their friends. A Facebook spokesperson told Engadget that Facebook can only remove things that violate its Community Standards and “we don’t have a policy that stipulates that everything posted to Facebook must be