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Can Facebook, Google Clean Up Fake News and Ad Messes Without Fundamental Change?

Amid all the recent outcries over fake news and the stacking of brand ads next to extremists’ videos, Facebook and YouTube have been scrambling to clean up their various messes. Their recent initiatives seem to be good-faith responses to address a set of significant problems that, because of the companies’ sheer size and reach, have serious impacts on our broader culture too.

But it’s important to remember these messes are directly related to what makes these organizations so incredibly successful.  Their core structural incentives, and those of many of their competitors, are built on hacking our brains, encouraging user behavior that builds their bottom lines through our repeated visits. And because of that, actually fixing the problems will be difficult without stronger actions either by the companies or ourselves. We may need to get serious about protecting ourselves from, well, ourselves.

In a near-endless manifesto published in February, Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg wrote that, “In times like these, the most important thing we at Facebook can do is develop the social infrastructure to give people the power to build a global community that works for all of us.”

It’s a sentiment that’s both welcome, way late and wildly inadequate, given the string of controversies that both companies have created even as they pursued their prime directive: getting people more wired into using their services more often. People who don’t haunt neuroscience labs or coding academies are only now beginning to understand how that works, but awareness is growing.

Even mainstream media outlets such as “60 minutes,” as staid and mainstream an outlet as is imaginable, have joined the conversation. On last Sunday’s show, one piece spotlighted former Google product manager Tristan Harris and others talking about how online companies purposely hack our brains, reinforcing and rewarding addictive behaviors to encourage more frequent use of their products.

“Look, never before in history have a handful of people at a handful of technology companies shaped how a billion people think and feel every day with the choices they make about these screens,” Harris told Anderson Cooper.

Harris is only one of many suggesting ways to be more selective and insulated from the insistent charms of our smartphones and social-media sites. Others include Arianna Huffington, now heading a better-living site called Thrive Global, which has an initiative called “Time Well Spent.” Even the French government is chiming in with legislation banning companies from reaching electronically into their employees’ lives after a certain time of night.

Meanwhile, after the fake-news controversies and the bad-ad boycott of the past few months , the two digital giants have announced a series of responses, initiatives, programs and policies to clean everything up. A partial list of those programs includes:

  • A $14 million fund to support research in news “integrity” and literacy, with contributions from Facebook, Mozilla, AppNexus, Betaworks, the Craig Newmark foundation and several others.
  • The Facebook Journalism Project, which promises collaborative development of new journalistic “products,” story-telling formats and emerging business models. Facebook also promised a stronger emphasis on local news as well as support for hackathons, newsroom training, and efforts to improve news literacy. It also launched a fact-checking arrangement with respected third-party non-profits to flag and help dissipate Facebook hoaxes.
  • A Google “Fact Check” site  to flag potential fake-news sites and stories in search results. Fact checking is provided by sites such as Politifact.
  • YouTube sites won’t be able to make money from ads until they get at least 10,000 views. It’s not a high bar, but keeps at least one group of dubious just-hatched “news” sites from making money right away.

Of course, the real problem facing Facebook, Google/YouTube and other social-media companies is that they have hired thousands of Very Smart People to help them build a playbook of  “engagement” tactics, and then to knit those tactics into the core of their operations. The companies have very few incentives to unknit those tactics, while retaining plenty of reasons to keep you coming back many times a day for more of everything they provide.

While it’s important to bolster what’s left of the legitimate, professional news industry as much as we can, and to improve news literacy and fact-checking tools for everyday readers, I’m beginning to think we need more serious responses.

We need to block out times of day when our apps and notifications are turned off, when we’re not engaging in our smartphones and email. Harris makes several suggestions in his speeches about being more discriminating about how we set up alerts, notifications and all the other things that can drive us repeatedly to our phones, and to distraction.

Ultimately, we can’t count on companies configured to make billions from our weaknesses to come save us from ourselves. We have to be active participants in our own, and our culture’s, improved mental health, with a more mindful and engaged approach to how much technology we let into our lives and in what fashion.