‘Fake news’ ban is starting to work

The concern about false and inaccurate news items distributed to malign or push a particular agenda is global. All social-media platforms have disclosed that literally millions of their accounts are fake. Facebook just deleted 30,000 accounts that they deemed spread “spam, as well as fake news, hoaxes and misinformation”.

Some here in the Philippines were regretting that the same thing was not done before the past election, although studies in the US showed conclusively that these “news” items had absolutely no statistical effect on the voters.

Nonetheless, there is a “feel-good factor” to knowing that somebody is trying to keep this information away from our tender and easily fooled ears and eyes. We have been taught that if it is on the Internet and repeated by thousands of other people, then it must be true. Besides, it is a lot of work to have to actually think and maybe even do some research to avoid being fooled by a picture of Steven Spielberg sitting next to a dead dinosaur that he just killed on his African safari. If you do not know what that means, then you are probably a more intelligent person for not having seen that on social-media sites.

The question—serious for some and dismissed by others—is who exactly gets to decide what is fake news and what is not? Any group or individuals given such a task would probably want to live up to the highest standards of ethics and objectivity. Of course, the first study and report about “fake news” web sites just happened to be a list of only conservative-leaning sites. A web site that reported that President-elect Donald J. Trump had made a secret trip to Russia the day after the election was excluded.

The largest social-media outlet is Facebook and under the direction of its founder—Mark Zuckerberg—has taken the initiative to monitoring and, perhaps, banning information deemed to be “fake”. Apparently, it is working, but perhaps, not the way they expected.

The Chicago Tribune newspaper has been in publication since 1847 and is the eighth-largest paper in the US. Since Facebook began its campaign against fake news in December 2016, an interesting situation has developed for Tribune. Granted, this newspaper was responsible for the incorrect 1948 presidential election “Dewey Defeats Truman”, probably most famous headline in history. But it can hardly be called a fake-news publication.

Yet, since last December, an interesting thing has happened. Like most press and media, the Tribune posts links to its web site news stories on Facebook. From a previous 30,000 to 35,000 people a month, this has dropped to 15,000 to 20,000 visiting the site from Facebook. As one commentator puts it, “Either the Chicago Tribune suddenly started producing a lot of garbage that no one wanted to read, which just happened to coincide with the implementation of Facebook’s new ‘fake news’ algorithm, or the media outlet was pumping out content that Facebook suddenly figured to fit the definition of fake”.

Government censorship is dangerous and we all acknowledge that as a fact. But at what point does any type of banning of news—fake or legitimate—by the private sector or even individuals become just as treacherous? It is a question that we must eventually answer.