Facebook under pressure to stop fake news

Facebook under pressure to stop fake news
© Greg Nash

Facebook is under growing pressure to do something about the fake news stories that are going viral online.

False stories on Facebook such as “Pope Francis endorses Trump” won huge readership during the presidential campaign. Some Democrats argue such stories played a part in President-elect Donald TrumpDonald TrumpAt center of Qatar crisis, a billion ransom Chaffetz: Threats against lawmakers should be taken seriously Warren cautions Dems against infighting MORE’s victory.

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The liberal group Media Matters for America on Tuesday launched a petition asking Facebook to “acknowledge the problem of proliferation of fake news” and “commit to taking action.”

The group said “it’s high time that [CEO] Mark Zuckerberg and Facebook fix their fake news problem and address the fever swamp/cesspool of misinformation that Facebook has become.”

Facebook is a dominant source of web traffic for media publications, leading outlets to post articles and videos directly on the site. But the explosion of fake news has sparked a debate about whether the company has a responsibility to weed out false but influential articles.

Facebook is a news source for 44 percent of people in the United States, according Pew Research Center. The site’s news feed features a “trending” section, intended to highlight articles and topics popular among its more than 1.7 billion users.

But the section, filled with stories picked by an algorithm, has been criticized for missing major headlines while promoting fake news from dubious sources.

Several false stories about the presidential election from fringe websites went viral on Facebook the year. Those include the false story about Pope Francis endorsing Trump and two false articles claiming Fox News’s Megyn Kelly was fired — one for supporting Democratic nominee Hillary ClintonHillary Rodham ClintonTrump: 'Why no action' from Obama on Russian meddling? Trump notes 'election meddling by Russia' in tweet criticizing Obama Former Obama advisor calls Fox ‘state sanctioned media’ MORE, the other for promoting a conspiracy theory about the 9/11 attacks.

Many of the stories focused on fake scandals related to Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton and the FBI investigation into the private email server she used while secretary of State. One falsely claimed Clinton was connected to a pedophilia ring, and another falsely claimed an FBI agent connected to the server murdered his wife and shot himself.

John Oliver, host of HBO’s “Last Week Tonight,” called Facebook “a cesspool of nonsense” in an extended takedown. A New York Times op-ed argued that Facebook has taken “a false and dangerous stance” by not cracking down harder on fake news.

Facebook has faced criticism for its handling of news content before. Earlier this year, conservatives were up in arms over reports that conservative publications were omitted from the “trending” section, something the site denied.

The criticism of the “trending” section reemerged this week after a report that the company suppressed an update meant to weed out fake news over fears it would disproportionately target conservative websites.

Zuckerberg has downplayed how much fake news is shared on website while touting the network’s role in registering more than 2 million voters this year.

In a Saturday statement, he insisted “more than 99% of what people see [on Facebook] is authentic and hoaxes aren’t limited to one party or ideology."

While Zuckerberg said it’s “extremely unlikely” that fake news influenced the election, questions about Facebook’s sway — and the influence of false content shared on the website — “are very important questions and I care deeply about getting them right.”

Facebook executives questioned the website’s influence on the election as results were coming in, according to The New York Times, and agreed that it should be addressed at a company-wide meeting. The company also on Monday clarified a policy that bans “illegal, misleading or deceptive” websites from running ads on Facebook.

“While implied, we have updated the policy to explicitly clarify that this applies to fake news,” said a Facebook spokesperson. “Our team will continue to closely vet all prospective publishers and monitor existing ones to ensure compliance.”

Despite the widespread criticism, lawmakers have been wary of launching a government probe into fake news, citing free speech concerns.

“I think there are consumer protection issues, but there are also first amendment protections and the two need to be balanced,” said Sen. Richard BlumenthalRichard BlumenthalOnly Congress can enable drone technology to reach its full potential Overnight Regulation: Labor groups fear rollback of Obama worker protection rule | Trump regs czar advances in Senate | New FCC enforcement chief Dems urge Sessions to reject AT&T-Time Warner merger MORE (D-Conn.), a member of the Senate Commerce Committee, said in September.

“Ultimately the consumer will rule on this, and they don’t want fake news stories,” said Rep. Greg Walden (R-Ore.), chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee’s technology subpanel.