Facebook has come up with a fact-checking scheme to reduce the flood of fake news posted on its site. It is deputizing reputable, third-party fact-checking sites to label posts as "disputed."
A "disputed" warning will appear prominently in the Facebook feed and pop up when someone tries to share the post. The fact-checking organizations include Snopes, FactCheck.org, and Politifact, which are part of the non-profit journalism institute Poynter's International Fact Checking Network.
Facebook, like other social media sites, takes only slight responsibility for what it publishes and prefers to think of itself as providing a platform for consumers and media outlets to self-publish their content.
Real publishers, like newspapers, take responsibility for their content and even produce a large percentage of it themselves. This is, of course, expensive and time-consuming. It's much easier for social media to simply let anyone post whatever they feel like and shift the responsibility to those doing the posting.
It has been noted that newspapers and other traditional outlets would be a lot better off financially if they simply shrugged and did nothing but publish letters to the editor. The Facebooks of the world generally reject this argument and even find it humorous.
Not so cute anymore
Facebook's cute little demurrers have been less effective, however, since the recent Presidential election. Many blamed the surprise Trump win on the streams of fake news, misinformation, rumors, and unchecked urban legends that were spread on Facebook, Reddit, Twitter, and elsewhere.
Facebook says it plans to label and, in some cases, cut off phony sites masquerading as legitimate news outlets. It suggests that this might help restore programmatic ad revenue to legitimate publishers that have seen marketing dollars siphoned off by bogus sites.
"We believe providing more context can help people decide for themselves what to trust and what to share," Adam Mosseri, Facebook's VP of product for News Feed, said in a blog post. "It will still be possible to share these stories, but you will see a warning that the story has been disputed as you share."
"We believe in giving people a voice and that we cannot become arbiters of truth ourselves, so we’re approaching this problem carefully," Mosseri said. "We’ve focused our efforts on the worst of the worst, on the clear hoaxes spread by spammers for their own gain, and on engaging both our community and third party organizations."
Facebook users will be asked to flag any posts they consider suspicious. The flagged posts will then be studied by the independent fact-checkers to determine if they appear to be bogus or genuine.
"Legitimate's" not always "true"
What critics often miss is that "legitimate" news is not always totally factual. All reporters know that politicians -- just to pick a handy example -- can and do lie when the situation requires it. Such misstatements of fact by public figures are not always discovered, although they may be revealed over time.
To pick another example, some testimony in a trial may be false. Criminals have been known to lie in an attempt to escape justice. But good journalistic practice calls for reporting the testimony accurately along with any contradictory testimony. Readers have some responsibility for sifting through competing arguments, after all.
News is less instant history than process, one of its veteran practitioners once said. Like scientists, reporters continually sift through the evidence available to them, trying to filter out the dreck and retain and report the little nuggets of truth that are uncovered in the process. Good journalists operate with a skeptical attitude and do not themselves take sides in public policy debates.
The bogus news sites currently in the spotlight are illegitimate because they simply make stuff up in hopes of advancing their political agenda or making a buck. Or both.