Tuesday, December 27, 2016

Fighting Facebook fake news: a resolution

The Facebook app dialog to report a post includes the radio-button choice "It's a fake news story."

Trust the media, or trust your Facebook friends? Here are my 3 steps to making sure fake news cannot fake you out.

I've made countless resolutions. Some even last past New Year's Day. This time of year I'm usually resolving to eat better or swear less. This year I have another resolution that involves fudge. But I think I can keep it, and you can too. I'm resolving to fight fudged facts.

I'm taking on fake news. The pope's pick for president. Secret societies at pizza parlors. Political hit squads, gangsta style. Stories some people can't resist posting on Facebook. They're incredible. They're fantastic. No, really. They're not credible. They're fantasy.

I hadn't heard many of them till the presidential race got so close, then I heard a lot. Could the news that made the difference have been bogus? Facebook's chief, Mark Zukerberg, called that idea "crazy." Then just a month later, Facebook made fake news a thing. You can flag stories in your news feed. Volunteer fact-checkers are standing by. To report a news story to the Facebook authorities, you choose the reason from a list: It's "annoying or not interesting," inappropriate, spam or fake news.

Now, much of Facebook can be annoying, off-topic, spammy or sketchy. Choosing just one problem may not be easy. Still, many of us love Facebook or Twitter. It's where we catch up on our quirkier interests and share them with others. It's no fun to think that you have to be careful out there, but it seems some people's interests are quirkier than others.

Coming from journalism, I can tell you that fact-checking is now up to you too. Like law, publishing has been a reliable institution for the messy business of sorting out the truth. Now people question all sorts of authority. The other day reporters were leaving a Donald Trump rally and a woman shouted out, "There goes the fake news."

But do you trust the media, or trust your Facebook friends? That's not an either-or question. Here are my three steps to making sure fake news cannot fake you out:

1. Seek out news with a good track record. Reporters need defending, because they do trustworthy things. They're at the Trump rallies and I'm not, so they're in a good position to get access to the facts. They're getting paid to do it, so they're rigorous. And since they've had a lot of practice, they can almost smell when something's off.

If a really big story hasn't made it to the nightly TV news, the front page in a newspaper or their websites, it's probably not a conspiracy. It's probably not true. I looked on Google for websites where one of these fake news stories appeared and I didn't recognize any of them. If it were that big of a story, at least one big name would have picked up on it.

It's worth paying subscription or dues money for real news. I don't trust that Facebook alone will do the job. A week after the election, the New York Times added 41,000 subscribers. The Wall Street Journal, the Atlantic, the Guardian, reliable sources are drawing more paying customers.

2. Don't treat headlines as the last word. Facts do get fudged to make them more of a click magnet. On a law blog this weekend I read that As First Lady, Melania Trump Will Apparently Push Forward With $150 Million Lawsuit Against Unknown 70-Year-Old Blogger. Reading the story, that fact didn't seem very apparent. Meanwhile Lifehacker told me Most People Have Cholesterol All Wrong. Turns out a lot of people know diet affects their health but are hazy on the details. So they're not all wrong.

Sometimes headlines are geared to just what's happening now. That's where you see what police have been doing or what video can show, neither of which may matter much tomorrow. And after the headlines come efforts to explain why stories are important. I don't reject the opinions, but I do try to sort them out.

3. Think twice about what your Facebook friends are up to. You never know for sure sure why your friends share a post. One website proved the point by publishing a bogus story with the headline: Study: 70% of Facebook users only read the headline of science stories before commenting. Some 46,000 people shared the post. But there was at least some truth to the headline, since the story itself was in Latin.

Naturally a lot of my friends and I think alike, but when they're your source for news that's not necessarily a good thing. Journalists likely missed the impact of fake news because it wasn't circulating in their circles. Our choice of friends limits what we see, or the feed algorithm will do the job for us. Either way it's hard to find out-of-the-box thinking on Facebook. We've already boxed ourselves in. It's easier to follow people with contrary views on Twitter, but closer attention to your high school Facebook friends may do the job.

I don't want to ignore my social media friends. In fact, I'm resolving to not tune them out, even if they get strident. Don't unfriend people over politics. If they're really friends, it's hurtful. Don't blame them for passing along something that looks fake, and don't get drawn into an argument. But do some fact checking for them, simply by googling the topic or checing sites like Snopes.com or FactCheck.org. You might learn something. They might learn something.

These are steps that can turn into lifelong habits. Let's resolve to spend more quality time with news on social media. Our friends will thank us.

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