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The Flame Is Lit, Facebook Must Reform Its Fake News Policy

[UPDATE: Overnight Thursday, July 26, Facebook joined YouTube in suspending Alex Jones’ personal account: Facebook suspends US conspiracy theorist Alex Jones. It’s a start, but still not enough. More below.]

Facebook’s stance on fake news and hoaxes is dangerous, it threatens democracy and undermines the good intentions of the First Amendment. It threatens our future, our kids’ future and the future of civil society.

I’ve been waiting for a media moment to spark ideological reform on Facebook, and I think we finally have it.

Recode’s Kara Swisher lit the match that ignited the collective media industry’s firm response to hold Facebook accountable to more bold actions against the likes of Alex Jones and InfoWars, and also compel Mark Zuckerberg and company to draw a line in the sand on real vs fake. (Back to that line in the sand later.)

In a recent Recode Decode podcast interview, show host Kara Swisher asked Mark Zuckerberg how Facebook handles untruthful media brands like InfoWars — specifically suggesting, make the case for not allowing them to be distributed by you — and Zuck asserted the following:

We look at the things that are getting the most distribution. If people flag them as potential hoaxes, we send those to fact-checkers who are all well reputable and have followed standard principles for fact checking, and if those fact checkers say that it is provably false, then we will significantly reduce the distribution of that content.

No, not enough. And Kara said as much with her retort:

So, you move them down the line rather than get rid of them?

Kara presses Zuck more — much more — but to no avail. (I highly recommend listening to the full hour and twenty minute interview and reviewing the interview transcript here: Full transcript: Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg on Recode Decode.)

Since Kara’s interview with Zuck, other Facebook executives have faced similar scrutiny following up on Kara’s brilliant line of questioning. New York Times’ “The Daily” podcast dedicated an entire episode to the subject, citing excerpts from the Recode interview — Listen to Facebook’s Plan to Police the Truth — and NYT captured additional sound bites from other Facebook officials on Capitol Hill asserting Zuck’s and Facebook’s aforementioned stance on InfoWars.

And while it doesn’t appear Facebook is losing meaningful ad dollars (yet), ad spend on Instagram grew four times that of Facebook year over year, and the company is seeing some user growth stagnation.

This is a good start, but it’s not enough. The collective media industry — tech platforms, media measurement companies, concerned executives — all must play their role in highlighting the insanity of allowing hate speech, lies and hoaxes to steal attention and grow market share on Facebook. If you have an opinion, share it. If you have data, publish it. If you can take business away from Facebook until you see the reform that meets your moral standards, do it. 

On that last point, I’ve been chatting with Field Garthwaite at IRIS.TV about these issues, and the droves of media publishers leaving Facebook. Many are turning to IRIS.TV’s AI personalization engine to bolster owned and operated media operations. Field is one of the media entrepreneurs I’ve truly admired for his bullish public comments advocating for Facebook to improve its practices. I emailed Field that I was pulling this piece together, and he sent me these thoughtful words:  

There is a cost to upholding principles of ethics when publishing media and distributing it. This is a cost that Facebook, nor any technology platform, has properly accounted for or anticipated. If Facebook does take an editorial stance, and perhaps is heavy handed against those sharing certain ideologies on their platform, then they risk alienating user groups that the company depends on for their size, scale and resulting ad revenue. The followers of InfoWars for example, is one group, and there are thousands that could take their audience and attention elsewhere. Since Facebook is so reliant on advertising revenue that poses a serious risk to the company.

Facebook won over people’s attention because they invested heavily in creating a great user experience. There is an opportunity for media companies to seize by investing in and creating better customer experiences. If media companies continue to improve the user experience of their digital products, then they can build large loyal audiences for the exclusive content that they alone produce, own and distribute. At that point Facebook and other platforms become marketing channels solely for user acquisition and no longer distribution channels.

– Field Garthwaite, CEO at IRIS.TV

Field’s comments perhaps hint at a tectonic shift happening in media already — more premium content migrating off Facebook. That said, it doesn’t change the Facebook (fake) news feed problem. Plus, as Field notes above, publishers need Facebook as a marketing channel, honest publishers and hoax-ridden sites included.

The time has come to draw a line in the sand, everyone. That line can’t be we support free speech and therefore people can post lies about the Holocaust and Sandy Hook, which Zuckerberg asserted in his Recode interview.

As I was set to publish this piece, news broke overnight (Thursday, July 26, 2018) that Facebook has suspended Alex Jones’ personal Facebook account — emphasis on personal. It’s a small victory, but important to note InfoWars is still alive and well on Facebook. Via The Guardian:

The suspension will last for 30 days, and affects only Jones’s personal account on the social network, not the main InfoWars account. His profile will continue to be published, but he will not be not be able to post fresh content until the suspension elapses.

With this act, you can see the positive ripples of change manifesting on the heels of the collective pressure from the media and public. However, be careful not to celebrate this too much.

So, like I said, it’s not enough.

The line in the sand we draw is simple: good or evil; love or hate; real or fake.

If you choose the side of good, love and real, then what are you waiting for? Why aren’t you speaking up? 

Ask yourself: what’s holding me back?

If you worry about a working relationship with Facebook, ask yourself: is my relationship with Facebook more important than my moral obligation as a human, as a husband or wife, as a parent who aims to uphold a level of moral standard that will ensure we leave the world a better place for our children?

Ideological reform on Facebook won’t come from inside the walled garden, it will come from the bottom up. It will come from journalists, executives and concerned citizens coming together.

And the demand is simple: draw a firm line in the sand banning hoaxes and fake news from Facebook for good.

It’s our move, everyone. There are plenty of great journalists leading the charge. Let’s join them in our collective fight for our democracy.