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Digital Business Lawyer

Facebook’s new approach to verifying news sources renews debate on tackling ‘fake news’

Facebook CEO and Chairman Mark Zuckerberg announced in a public post on his official Facebook profile on 19 January 2018 that the ‘News Feed’ section of the social media platform will not only show less news to Facebook users, but steps will also be taken to prioritise presenting news that is “trustworthy, informative, and local” from sources that the platform’s user community determine to be so. Zuckerberg stated that the intention of the functionality changes is to present high quality news to users, expressing concern about there being “too much sensationalism, misinformation and polarization in the world today.” The move prompted renewed debate among commentators over the responsibility of social media platforms to monitor and diminish the spread of ‘fake news.’

Zuckerberg’s announcement revealed that the method with which news sources will be deemed “trustworthy” or not by Facebook users will be through ‘quality surveys.’ “As part of our ongoing quality surveys, we will now ask people whether they’re familiar with a news source and, if so, whether they trust that source,” stated Zuckerberg. “The idea is that some news organisations are only trusted by their readers or watchers, and others are broadly trusted across society even by those who don’t follow them directly.” Antonio Turco, Partner at Blakes, believes that giving this responsibility to the Facebook user community could run the risk of unreliable news sources being marked as trustworthy. “The reason fake news has proliferated, including on Facebook, is largely due to the fact that people are unable, or unwilling, to determine if a news story originates from a responsible source which follows traditional journalistic principles,” comments Turco. “In many cases, whether a news source is ‘trustworthy’ is a function of a user’s political affiliation. For example, in the United States, many conservatives do not consider MSNBC ‘trustworthy.’ The same goes for liberals and Fox News.”

Zuckerberg went on to justify Facebook’s decision to give the responsibility of determining trustworthy news sources to the user community. “We could try to make that decision ourselves, but that’s not something we’re comfortable with,” writes Zuckerberg. “We considered asking outside experts, which would take the decision out of our hands but would likely not solve the objectivity problem. Or we could ask you - the community - and have your feedback determine the ranking. We decided that having the community determine which sources are broadly trusted would be most objective.”

“If Facebook or its experts made that determination for the Facebook community, it would be significantly influencing the perspective, so I can see why it does not want to do that,” said David Fink, Partner at Kelley Drye & Warren. “To the extent that Facebook has the capacity to prevent its platform from essentially being weaponised as a vehicle for misinformation actions or foreign interference, I think that this is a good thing. Ultimately, each one of us bears the responsibility for making sure we are well informed about our society and it is up to each individual to make responsible choices.”

In response to Zuckerberg’s announcement, Rupert Murdoch, Executive Chairman of News Corp, made a statement on 22 January 2018, in which he commented that if Facebook wants to recognise ‘trusted’ publishers then it should pay those publishers a carriage fee similar to the model adopted by cable companies. “The publishers are obviously enhancing the value and integrity of Facebook through their news and content but are not being adequately rewarded for those services,” commented Murdoch. “Carriage payments would have a minor impact on Facebook’s profits but a major impact on the prospects for publishers and journalists.”

“Murdoch’s proposal is an interesting idea but not the answer,” adds Turco. “Most social media platforms can include links to stories posted online by ‘trustworthy’ news outlets without the need to pay the outlet. Accordingly, it’s unclear why a platform would pay unless the platform wishes to promote a connection to a reliable news source. In fact, there may be an equally strong argument that a news source should pay a platform for the traffic that a link to the source might generate. This does not address the problem of users sharing fake news to their networks, nor does it address the fact that trust in traditional news sources is at an all-time low, at least in the United States.”

“This conversation has been ongoing in one form or another since news became widely available online,” concludes Fink. “Now every story breaks almost instantly, and everyone has a camera and a computer in their pocket. It’s of course too soon to know how these changes will impact everyone, including news outlets. However, given that the 2018 changes are targeted to prioritise posts that spark conversations and substantive interactions between people, both large and small news outlets will be incentivised to focus on building up such comment interactions on Facebook.”

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