The public gets a lot of its news and information from Facebook. Some of it is fake. That presents a problem for the site’s users, and for the company itself.
Facebook cofounder and chairman Mark Zuckerberg said the company will find ways to address the problem, though he didn’t acknowledge its severity. And without apparent irony, he made this announcement in a Facebook post surrounded – at least for some viewers – by fake news items.
Other technology-first companies with similar power over how the public informs itself, such as Google, have worked hard over the years to demote low-quality information in their search results. But Facebook has not made similar moves to help users.
What could Facebook do to meet its social obligation to sort fact from fiction for the 70 percent of internet users who access Facebook? If the site is increasingly where people are getting their news, what could the company do without taking up the mantle of being a final arbiter of truth? My work as a professor of information studies suggests there are at least three options.
Facebook says it is a technology company, not a media company. The company’s primary motive is profit, rather than a loftier goal like producing high-quality information to help the public act knowledgeably in the world.
Nevertheless, posts on the site, and the surrounding conversations both online and off, are increasingly involved with our public discourse and the nation’s political agenda. As a result, the corporation has a social obligation to use its technology to advance the common good.
Discerning truth from falsehood, however, can be daunting. Facebook is not alone in raising concerns about its ability – and that of other tech companies – to judge the quality of news. The director of FactCheck.org, a nonprofit fact-checking group based at the University of Pennsylvania, told Bloomberg News that many claims and stories aren’t entirely false. Many have kernels of truth, even if they are very misleadingly phrased. So what can Facebook really do?