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Is it for real(z)?

Fri Jan 11 13:15:20 2019

This week Facebook has announced it will be working with a UK fact checking charity (https://fullfact.org) to manage the amount of ‘fake News’ on its website.1 While I see this as a good thing I don’t think it is the behaviour we should be encouraging. Let me try to explain why.

  1. Facebook has always had an issue with the manner in which its algorithm shows stories and relevance. It isn’t, in my opinion, a good thing. This will do nothing much to change that. Your most active, and sensational, connections will still be the most prominent.

  2. It offloads responsibility. So there will be a simple mechanism for reporting an item as fake backed by a service that judges its likely level of truth. That’s nice but it doesn’t teach people to recognise fake news, it just teaches them to report and have someone else gauge its accuracy.2

So my issue is that it will not really reduce people’s behaviour in sharing the bad news and it offloads responsibility which will likely mean that people will not believe the accuracy report if it diverges from their cognitive biases (you’ll just end up with denial and conspiracy theory being bandied about).

The Solution(?)

I would much rather that we encourage people to examine the articles themselves, hopefully before posting, or by posting and questioning. We should teach people how to do a little research and how to balance arguments via that research.

I know the issues here, there is a lot of fake sites. But there are also reputable sources including fullfact.org, Wikipedia, Snopes etc. If you are already ‘off the plantation’ and think the Earth is flat, climate change is a lie or any other half-baked nonsense then having your posts reported as fake is unlikely to change your opinion in fact it will feed into your delusion.

But I think most people have enough of an open awareness to judge and value information based on sources, citation and evidence.3 So the plan is, show people. Try not to berate, argue or accuse. But by example lead the way. Use whatever sources you want and encourage them to do the same. This will also lead to better critical evaluation on what is, or is not, fake.4

An Example

I saw a news item a friend had posted to Facebook that claimed that we could recycle plastic into road surfaces and they had been doing this successfully in India for decades. My friend wanted to highlight that there are alternative ways to recycle and was happy that it was being done. I was skeptical because the story and image didn’t match up. The road wasn’t Indian, it looked like a UK road.

So I did a little digging, and it wasn’t too hard to do. The sign on the road about it being entirely recycled had a company name and website on it. So I googled the company and discovered they did indeed make recycled road surfaces. They were out of plastic. They were a new(-ish) idea, and it was in Scotland. The idea had come to the inventor when he travelled in India and noticed the locals melted plastic bottles to fill in potholes in road surfaces that were not repaired by local authorities. He thought it could be done better. This was mostly because the fix was not long lasting or that friendly, it did involve burning plastic in the streets.

So the article had elements of truth but was mostly falsely represented. Under a system that judges truth by a percentage it was maybe under 50% true so therefore pretty much fake news. Except it isn’t, it was just poorly written click bait. Elements of truth made sensational to increase share value.5

Examination and critical appraisal uncovered more information and what looks like a closer account of the truth of the situation. A scoring/reporting system might not. We can all learn to use these skills and not just have a system of click to fix, that’s what got us in this sorry mess in the first place.


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  1. The news is widely reported but you can read it on the Telegraph’s page here: https://www.telegraph.co.uk/technology/2019/01/10/facebook-brings-fact-checking-service-uk-take-disinformation/ ↩

  2. Note that this is in no way a judgement on the charity and website Full Fact. They have a very noble setup and I personally like them. I worry about how it will be implemented and utilised by Facebook and have doubts about the methods we are teaching people. https://fullfact.org ↩

  3. I am not claiming that most people do this, but that they can do this if they want to. ↩

  4. The whole notion of Fake News is difficult for me. What is fake? There is a possibility of just misinformed, misrepresented, or variable witness. What is truth from an objective standpoint. If I hear something that I think you said, and you don’t recall saying it but cannot prove otherwise, did you say it? Is that now truth?  ↩

  5. My feeling is that Facebook are either going to provide a link, a short explanation, a happy face/unhappy face, a tick or a cross or some other simple visual method to show the ‘level of validity’ in any item. This feels like it would fit into the Facebook ouvre. However it is a poorer method than what I would like to see happen. ↩