Facebook, Google Take Steps To Confront Fake News

Nov 15, 2016
Originally published on November 15, 2016 10:33 am

Since Donald Trump's election victory, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg has come out not once, but twice, to address the issue of fake news, inaccurate or simply false information that appears on the Web in the guise of journalism.

Zuckerberg made his remarks at the Techonomy 16 media conference and then on his own Facebook page. He said the idea that fake news on his platform influenced the election in any way is "a pretty crazy idea."

But a former employee, Antonio Garcia-Martinez, disagrees and says his old boss is being "more than a little disingenuous here."

Garcia-Martinez, who has written a book about the company called Chaos Monkeys, was hired to help lead Facebook's efforts to target ads. He says his ad team used to joke: It would be so easy to throw an election, just by showing vote reminders to select counties.

It was a joke. But his point is, Facebook has real potential power.

"There's an entire political team and a massive office in D.C. that tries to convince political advertisers that Facebook can convince users to vote one way or the other," Garcia-Martinez says. "Then Zuck gets up and says, 'Oh, by the way, Facebook content couldn't possibly influence the election.' It's contradictory on the face of it."

Facebook makes money by selling ad space inside its news feed. It also makes money as a broker between its advertisers and other online companies.

On Monday, a company spokesperson told NPR that it is not doing business with fake news apps. These outside parties are not allowed to use the ad network (called Audience Network), and that has been company policy — which Facebook is now simply clarifying.

But the company did not address the reality that if fake news lands in the Facebook news feed, the company makes money from the eyeballs it draws. This is not a theoretical issue. Take a look at these examples of viral fake news, compiled by Snopes.com.

Earlier on Monday, Google, another tech giant, said it's working on a policy to keep its ads off fake news sites. Garcia-Martinez says it's "ambitious" of Google to make this promise.

"Where does it end? Are they just going to limit it to advertising?" he asks. "Are they not going to show search results of things that are obviously false? I mean, even false content itself is free speech, even though it's false speech."

Neither company has explained how it will identify news as fake. According to BuzzFeed, a group of employees inside Facebook has formed a renegade group to work on solutions to fake news, despite the CEO's public denial of the problem.

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Facebook is under fire for fake news hosting articles that are not true but go viral on the app. NPR's Aarti Shahani reports that the company's responding with mixed messages. And we should mention here Facebook pays NPR and other leading news organizations to produce live video streams that run on the site.

AARTI SHAHANI, BYLINE: Since President-elect Donald Trump won, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg has come out not once but twice to address this issue of fake news. And he said the idea that fake news on his platform influenced the election in any way is, quote, "a pretty crazy idea." His former employee, Antonio Garcia-Martinez, disagrees.

ANTONIO GARCIA-MARTINEZ: Yeah, I mean, I think Zuck (ph) is being more than a little disingenuous here.

SHAHANI: Garcia-Martinez, who's written a book about the company called "Chaos Monkeys," was hired to help lead Facebook's efforts to target ads. He says his ad team used to joke it would be so easy to throw an election just by showing vote reminders to select counties. It was a joke, but his point is they have real potential power.

GARCIA-MARTINEZ: There's an entire political team and a massive office in D.C. that tries to convince advertisers that, you know, Facebook can convince users to vote one way or the other. And then Zuck gets up and says, oh, by the way, Facebook content couldn't possibly influence the election. I mean (laughter), it's - it's contradictory on the face of it.

SHAHANI: Facebook makes money by selling ad space inside its news feed. And it makes money as a broker between its advertisers and other online companies. But on Monday, a Facebook spokesperson told NPR, we're not doing business with fake news apps. We're not letting them use the ad network, and that's been our policy. But the company did not address the reality that, if fake news lands in your news feed, Facebook makes money from the eyeballs it draws. Earlier on Monday, Google said it's working on a policy to keep their ads off fake news sites. Neither company has explained how it will identify news as fake. Aarti Shahani, NPR News, New York. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.