A crisis of conscience seems to be sweeping through Silicon Valley since the Presidential Election this month. Its reaction that can best be described as “Wait? Our actions may have real world consequences? And what people read on our sites will impact their opinions? Who knew?”*
San Francisco, we’ve got a problem
Twitter’s big move was mass suspension of accounts related to the alt-right. Think a group saying things very similar to the stuff that got Milo Yiannopoulos permanently banned this summer. A key distinction here is that while Milo was suspended for violating the terms of service, not everyone on this list was violating them.
For Facebook, Mark Zuckerberg was forced to admit that yes, Facebook does have a fake news problem. In fact, fake news is actually outperforming real news in many cases. He laid out a plan of action for combating it that includes “disrupting the fake news economics,” improving their algorithm and working more closely with third parties for verification.
Even though it never quite managed to position itself as a social media company, Google is getting in on the action too. It will be removing fake news from search results and remove ads from known fake news sites.
So why am I still crabby?
Considering how many posts I’ve written this summer about fake news and trolls, you’d think I’d be thrilled with the news. Instead, I’m underwhelmed for a couple reasons:
- Twitter is banning a topic, not a behavior: Trolls come in all shapes and sizes these days, but Twitter isn’t protecting all its users. For example, I have a friend who has been on the receiving end of hate mail and hacking because she blogs about life on a diary farm. Women get threats for writing feminist articles. Scientists get attacked for their views on GMOs. Twitter’s ban doesn’t help any of them better protect themselves online.
- Facebook is crowd-sourcing responsibility: Along the same lines, one of Facebook’s steps to prevent fake news is to make reporting easier. That just makes it easier for trolls to report anything they don’t like, regardless of its veracity. Plus, people aren’t great at determining what is fake and what is real. In fact, a recent survey showed teens can’t tell the difference.
- There are people who specialize in verifying the news: They’re called journalists, and Facebook fired all of theirs earlier this summer. The news industry isn’t blameless in the battle for clicks and advertising dollars, not by a long shot, but trained, professional journalists know how to spot fake stories. Instead of hiring any, Facebook is just planning to “partner” with them.
Some good news
There are some signs of hope, though. For one thing, Twitter has a new “mute” feature that makes means users can avoid certain topics or phrases, no matter who is posting it. Previously, users had to block each individual harasser.
On the fake news front, a group of college students created an extension called FiB to flag unverified news (although it doesn’t currently look like it’s live). Urban legend-debunker Snopes has also branched out into fact-checking everything we’re sharing online.
And if you’re worrying about news that isn’t fake, just potentially biased, check out AllSides. This site shows stories from left, centrist and right-leaning sources for easy comparison.
*Ok, fine. That’s a bit snide. Call it a case of “I told you so!” from a career spent in advertising and mass communications.
About the author:
Tara Saylor Litzenberger is a communications manager by day, grad student by night and curious all the time. She is also a web nerd and recovering copywriter. Tara focuses on the channels that enable communication and using metrics to improve communication effectiveness. She tweets about communication and combines as @AnokheeTara.