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Facebook is back in the media spotlight, this time facing questions regarding its potential role in the outcome of the recent presidential election. This is not a happy position for the company, which has always preferred to be a platform for news rather than a trending topic of discussion.
In response to allegations that Facebook helped Trump’s campaign by allowing far-right news outlets to disseminate false information and rumors on its platform, Mark Zuckerberg released a statement noting that “[of] all the content on Facebook, more than 99% of what people see is authentic. Only a very small amount is fake news and hoaxes.”
Now a new report by Gizmodo cites two sources “with direct knowledge of the company’s decision-making”, who allege that Facebook deliberately withheld a News Feed update that would have scrubbed fake news and hoaxes, for fear that it would “disproportionately” impact right-wing news organizations.
“They absolutely have the tools to shut down fake news,” one of the anonymous sources said, adding that “there was a lot of fear about upsetting conservatives after Trending Topics,” and that “a lot of product decisions got caught up in that.” In an emailed response to Gizmodo, Facebook stated that it “did not build and withhold any News Feed changes based on their potential impact on any one political party.”
To address the spread of fake news, Facebook has opted to shift the onus on users, relying on people to flag phony content, which does little to remove human bias. It also released a machine learning algorithm earlier this year to identify and demote clickbait.
Since the platform first became embroiled in controversy for using human curators to determine its Trending Topics, Facebook has been cautious in rolling out changes to its News Feed algorithm, in an effort to protect its reputation as an objective conduit of information, while respecting the wishes of its users. As we’ve noted before, the two aims aren’t perfectly aligned.
Going forward, Zuckerberg promised to work to further rein in the amount of hoaxes on users’ News Feeds: “We don’t want any hoaxes on Facebook. Our goal is to show people the content they will find most meaningful, and people want accurate news.”