Facebook, Fake News & Zuckerberg’s Response

Photo by @Om (http://om.co)

Mark Zuckerberg, after a heated debate (which even had US President Obama weighing in) on the issue of fake news and its role in modern politics and the future of democracy in our networked society, has broken his silence. In a message posted on Facebook, he listed a variety of measures Facebook is taking in order to fight the scourge of fake news. For about a week or so, Facebook and Zuckerberg have been saying that they don’t want to interfere with news and they don’t want to act like censors. 

Like many other observers, I felt that it was an easy cop-out for the platform which on one hand claims of being authentic and engaging, while on the other hand seem to have the tools to fight what is essentially spam of the modern age. And I told as much to Olivia Solon, the San Francisco correspondent of The Guardian. Here are my comments

“This is a company that talks about artificial intelligence and the idea that it can’t deal with fake news shows it’s not intelligent at all. It’s super dumb,” he said. “If I am running a platform there’s a huge difference between the Guardian, the New York Times and fake sites spreading bullshit.”

Facebook, in his view, should treat fake news in the same way that email providers treat spam. “We keep getting spam in email and yet we are able to stop it. There have to be solutions to spammy information inside platforms like Facebook.” Malik suggests that Facebook is commercially motivated to keep fake news on the platform. “As long as people are engaged and stay on the network, it works for them.”

In the long run, the spread of misinformation could erode trust in the entire system. “They can’t wash their hands and say, ‘We don’t want to interfere’,” Malik said. “Why should we then believe any video stream or any brand that appears on Facebook?” Despite the stern words, Malik thinks that the fake news fiasco is a temporary blip, though he says he welcomes the pressure being applied by the media trying to encourage it to be more thoughtful about the quality and influence of the content shared on its platform.

There have been many offers of guidance for Facebook as it tackles the growing number of fake news outlets. Jeff Jarvis (professor of media) and John Borthwick (of Betaworks) proposed 15 good ideas, though most of them lack any sort of technical guidance on how these could be achieved. Dave Winer has a smart proposal to counter the influence of Facebook in news. 

For me, the question is not fake news, but the future of information (and misinformation) in a networked society and how do we build identity-defined information platforms. It is what Jeff Bezos and all of the tech industry should be spending their attention — not trying to impose the old newsroom standards on this networked world, which moves, acts and evolves faster than human skills. 

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