Facebook and Pseudo-news: Oh, what influence it has!

If you follow the DN social accounts, you’ve noticed I’ve been sharing links about the FaceBook Fake News Fiasco that flamed up after the election of Mr. Trump. Allegations were made that Facebook-shared content that pretended to be “news” influenced voters. Obviously, as the owner of a site called “Doubtful News”, I can hardly let this story pass by without personal comment. I have enough comments to write an entire book about it! But instead, I’ll provide you with a run down of the coverage of this story with some interesting bits that tie in directly with DN itself.

Back in August 2016, The NY Times called out Facebook as having a “Totally Insane, Unintentionally Gigantic, Hyperpartisan Political-Media Machine”  The election of Mr. Trump and the elevation of Mr. Bannon showed that facts matter less than ideology and rhetoric. This is not new. But what is new for this election is the degree to which it was played out via the Internet.

Millions and millions of people use Facebook to access news content. FB is like the water cooler on a planetary scale. Where people gather and exchange info, they will share talk about news. FB makes it easy as two clicks to share various web links directly. FB is a top vehicle for communication in the US right now. Facebook news users amount to 44% of the general population.

Journalists across the board did not do a great job with this election. This election was dominated by online news content and internet-based media over traditional print and TV news. All news was shared at some point on FB since every media outlet has a FB presence. We experienced a constant flood of information from reputable news outlets and completely made-up content from websites with official-sounding names. Such sites populated the web like fleas on a dirty dog and cleaned up with advertising revenue thanks to their irresistible click-bait headlines.

Getting eyeballs and clicks was all the rage. That certainly seemed to contribute to the low quality reporting from almost all news outlets. As news consumers we could easily tailor our news feeds to suit our preferences. To say, as Mark Zuckerberg did, that this has no impact on the election, on US democracy, is ludicrous. But he hypocritically and hopefully stated exactly that:

“Personally I think the idea that fake news on Facebook, which is a very small amount of the content, influenced the election in any way—I think is a pretty crazy idea,” Zuckerberg said two days after the election. “Voters make decisions based on their lived experience.”

The Quartz piece ends with:

You can’t create a world-changing platform for social interaction, then claim it had little to do with a cataclysmic shift in society.

And the NY Times has this:

Facebook has long spoken of how it helped influence and stoke democratic movements in places like the Middle East, and it tells its advertisers that it can help sway its users with ads. Facebook reaches 1.8 billion people around the globe, and the company is one of the largest distributors of news online. A Pew Research Center study said that nearly half of American adults rely on Facebook as a news source.


Zuckerberg seems oblivious to how people are using FB in real life. There is no “very small amount of fake news” on FB, Mr. Z. It is awash in it, and certain people, based on their preferences will see more of it. Since he says that FB is not a media company – it’s just a sharing platform – then why does the inner workings of FB manipulate our feed using filters and holding close piles and piles of metrics and data? If it’s not influential in changing people’s minds, why put advertising on there? Why is he ignoring FBs own research to show how it makes friends and influences people? Zuckerberg is in denial but he cares. FB is NOW a media company and they have to start responding like one. Vox had a number of good suggestions like transparency and the ability to opt-out of quality filters.

Two stories were repeatedly highlighted in this coverage of fake news that people seemed to eat up. First, that Trump was endorsed by Pope Francis and, second, that an FBI agent who leaked information about Clinton was found dead. Neither story was factual and neither source was credible. Thus, neither registered on the DN radar because they were from obviously fake sites.

Mike Caulfield looked at the FBI story and compared it to trending stories from major news outlets (with fact checking, journalistic integrity, and a reputation to protect) to see if fake news (from news-like sites that are typically only a few months old) is “shared” more frequently. It wasn’t an ideal comparison but the difference was so humongous that it’s worth noting. The top genuine news stories were shared maybe thousands of times. The entertaining, ideology-driven, flaming fake stories could be shared hundreds of thousands of times.
This brings up a few points of discussion:

  • Sharing doesn’t mean reading
  • Do people know if what they are reading is “news”? Do they care?

People regularly share without reading beyond the headline:

On June 4, the satirical news site the Science Post published a block of “lorem ipsum” text under a frightening headline: “Study: 70% of Facebook users only read the headline of science stories before commenting.”

Nearly 46,000 people shared the post, some of them quite earnestly — an inadvertent example, perhaps, of life imitating comedy.

People totally fell for that – proving the rule. News is not about facts, it’s about… lots of other things.

An obvious question arises: “What is “news”?” For some people news can be anything, a new video, a cartoon, a meme.

What is “fake”? The Onion is fake but clearly labeled satire. There is pseudo-news and then there is crappy news coverage that has a kernel of truth used to craft an outrageous claim.
The parallel to the comparison of pseudoscience, bad science, and sounding sciencey is clear. There is a spectrum of content. How do you draw lines on a continuum? Algorithms on Facebook aren’t going to be able to do it if it’s even difficult for real humans to do.

None this information about the incredible power of fake news is news to me. From the beginning of DN in 2011, it’s been crystal clear that people will choose to listen to, share, and popularize sources that say what they want to hear and not even register those that say the opposite. It’s also clear that Facebook sharing is the most powerful driver of traffic to websites.

A Buzzfeed study, done by Craig Silverman who has studied fake news for a while now, showed that the least accurate “news” pages generate higher shares, reactions and comments on FB. Even ridiculous, how-can-you-possibly-believe-this-is-true stories are followed by outraged comments from people who either really do believe it or are good at pretending.

I’m not sure people actually want news as much as they want confirmation of their biases. Liberals will share something from Occupy Democrats that has a newsy headline. The Alt-right will defend Breitbart as a source. They aren’t doing it to spur discussion as much as to conspicuously display their values and promote their ideology. That isn’t necessarily wrong unless you are claiming it’s factual, then we have a problem. Neither of those sites have journalistic ethics processes in place to ensure veridical content. It’s not their goal, really. Facts don’t influence the human brain as much as emotions do.

Speaking of Breitbart, Steve Bannon, now heading to the White House with his bro, admits that FB propelled his awful siteBreitbart was slanted so much it made Fox News look like a reasonable alternative. (I just right now, added Breitbart to our “Beyond Doubtful” sources list. I should have done that long ago.)

Now, Google and Facebook, responding to the criticism, say they are going to do something about it. Google says it will ban ads on Google Ad Sense service that promote fake news as a hook. How they will do that is unclear but maybe we won’t be seeing so many of those obnoxious fake news clickbait ads at the bottom of websites. Something equally awful will take their place. Google also ranks bad information high in search results. Will this be fixed as well? It’s not easy to apply judgement on such things.

None of this would be a problem if most Americans exercised some critical thinking about news and were less eager with the sharing reflex. (You can stop laughing now…) That, however, is well-nigh impossible to change. In the real virtual world, Facebook drives traffic mostly via pages where people of like minds look to have their beliefs reinforced. This site benefited greatly from past FB links on the Skeptical Inquirer and Richard Dawkins webpages. (They don’t link to us anymore which is why I often plea to SHARE SHARE SHARE!!!) We mainly get traffic from Google. How will humans or algorithms judge our posts? We are left to their whims. Google News rejected DN as a source twice with no explanation. We tried… odds are stacked against reason and rational discourse. But if the skeptical voice wasn’t there, there would be… crickets.

It’s the way of the world that mystery-mongering and earth doom sites get more clicks than a reasonable assessment of the same claims. The public loves their drama. It sure would be nice if there was a credibility curve employed, but there isn’t. The world is left to judge on their own the cesspool of information on the Internet. Fake news is a product to sell to the gullible and they gobble it right up. Hell, even we’ve fallen for it a few times. It’s evil, and it undermines an educated society made up of people who vote. Something has to be done or we’re all doomed. [Addition: But what? The current hand waiving will do nothing.]  Help us, Mark Zuckerberg and Google, you’re our only hope… [j/k, there is no stopping fake news. It’s always been and always will be.]

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  12 comments for “Facebook and Pseudo-news: Oh, what influence it has!

  1. Jim Phillips
    November 16, 2016 at 12:14 AM

    Now that our country has fallen down the rabbit hole, we have to take a long, hard look at the news business. We’ve long known that most of the news outlets have their biases but maybe there needs to be a ratings system for their own veracity. Maybe something similar to movie and game rating systems.

  2. Mike
    November 16, 2016 at 1:47 AM

    Definitely sharing this.

  3. randall krippner
    November 16, 2016 at 8:05 AM

    This is, alas, all too true. It has gotten to the point where I find it difficult to accept anything the media publishes, even mainstream media sources, unless I spend long minutes tracking down references, sources, etc. to fact check what I read or heard. The days of editors who actually edit, fact checkers who actually check facts, etc. seem to have gone the way of the dinosaur. I don’t believe any health related news I see in the media any longer unless I track down and read the original studies myself because even allegedly reliable news sources have been found to take information out of context, misinterpret findings, wildly exaggerate results, etc. in order to generate a clickbait headline.

    How did we go from a news media fronted by people like Walter Cronkite, Chet Huntley and David Brinkley who were respected and trusted (with justification) to a media that is about as reliable as the old Weekly World News? There are a lot of different reasons and this is not the appropriate forum to get into that. The real question is how can we stop it and reverse it.

  4. Terrence A. Lee
    November 16, 2016 at 8:19 AM

    Thank you for your very thorough and penetrating analysis. Facebook is indeed a significant influence in our society, for good or ill depending on your point of view.

    I’m not particularly clear as to what the “something” is in “Something has to be done.”, nor am I comfortable in leaving it in the hands of a Mark Zuckerberg (or anyone else for that matter).

  5. November 16, 2016 at 8:29 AM

    You’re right. I don’t think much can be done. Maybe a new browser extension or app but those have failed in the past (WebofTrust) or not caught on to the extent needed (Rbutr). A crowd-sourced system is problematic because we have different judgements on “truth” and “facts”. “Something” means something no one has thought of to use yet. My last line was a bad joke. Zuckerberg can’t fix this (one person is not all of Facebook) and Google doesn’t really want to make the effort.

    We’ve had ridiculous and downright fake news since the dawn of newsprint. I can’t see how it will be fixed now.

  6. Todd Stonewall
    November 16, 2016 at 1:47 PM

    Trying to learn about the world through your facebook feed is like trying to learn about physics by watching a Bugs Bunny cartoon.

  7. Perry
    November 16, 2016 at 1:53 PM

    Here’s a vivid example from The Daily Beast of how people are eating up fake news and ignoring factual news. We are now in the Disinformation Age. The US Union is close to being the new Soviet Union, at least when it comes to propaganda in the media, and perhaps in many other ways too.


    “By the time DonaldTrumpNews.co’s headline “BREAKING: Since Donald Trump Won The Presidency Ford Shifts Truck Production From Mexico To Ohio” racked up 20,600 shares, there was a startling development in the real world.

    “Ford CEO Mark Fields announced his company was doing the opposite of the viral reports on Facebook. “Ford Motor Co. is moving ahead with plans to shift production of small cars to Mexico from Michigan,” Reuters reporter Alexandria Sage wrote at 5 p.m. Tuesday.
    That story—entirely true—had 233 shares on Reuters’ Facebook page at press time.”

  8. Chris
    November 16, 2016 at 2:05 PM

    “Google News rejected DN as a source twice with no explanation.”

    But, but, but… I swear I have seen “Age of Autism” pop up on Google News!

    Thanks or the link to the Washington Post about the satirical “The Science Post.” That blog actually has the word “satire” in its subtitle, and every week someone who posts there claiming “is this real” is surprised that word is at the top of the page. They not only do not go past the article title, but don’t even look at the total title of the web page.

    Then there are those who think satire needs to always be funny. Um, no.

  9. November 16, 2016 at 2:22 PM

    I obtained most of my opera knowledge through that means.

  10. One Eyed Jack
    November 17, 2016 at 5:41 AM

    Sure. we can demand higher standards from FB, but that doesn’t change the fact that most people live in echo chambers. The internet, despite all its potential for access to diverse information, has become nothing more than a way for most people to reinforce whatever beliefs they already hold.

    Any meaningful change has to come by encouraging people to consider views and ideas outside of their comfort zone. I don’t know if this is even possible. It is comforting to have your views reinforced. Need I mention Trump? ( I say that not because I disagree with him, but because so many of his rally statements contradicted his own written policy proposals and some were just outright impossible. Yet it was comforting for many to hear what they wanted to hear. ). It is unpleasant to have them challenged. So, into the echo chamber we go.

  11. Bob Jase
    November 17, 2016 at 12:18 PM

    Funny, I learned French from Bug’s friend Pepe (not the frog).

  12. David Group
    November 23, 2016 at 3:56 AM

    I think the real problem is that schools don’t teach critical thinking to help young minds evaluate information and its sources. By the time they’re adults, it’s hard to convince them that 9/11 was not orchestrated by our government or that it is very unlikely that Bigfoot exists. I’ve given up arguing with people because they don’t listen to you, or they just get loonier (“Goldman Sachs= Sacks of Gold, Man. Get it?”). Even then, you’re fighting an uphill battle because they’ve already assimilated their parents’ beliefs, or the schools or community may have a certain agenda (e.g., downplaying the evils of slavery). People from other countries think Americans are nuts and, sadly, this is largely true.

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