FACEBOOK’S DISSEMINATION OF DISINFORMATION ACCELERATES

 Facebook’s (FB) spreading of disinformation is accelerating, despite any claims to the contrary. Its CEO, Mark Zuckerberg, repeatedly says that he does not want FB to be an arbiter of free speech, but it is the arbiter of what information or speech FB users see.

Zuckerberg also asserts that the best way to fight offensive bad speech is with good speech. [1] However, this is a false equivalency as good speech that tries to counter bad speech has to mention the bad speech which furthers its presence in our public discourse. This has been shown by research to further embed the bad or false speech in people’s minds. For example, reporting on Trump’s tweets and stating they are false or misleading, still puts Trump’s tweets in front of the viewing or reading audience.

Facebook’s current stated standard is that posts that are not calling for harm or violence, however offensive, should be protected as free speech. Its new policy announced in October will finally ban posts that deny or distort the Holocaust. This is a very small and belated step forward against some of the worst and most obviously harmful disinformation that FB has spread. Almost a quarter of Americans between ages 18 and 39 say they believe the Holocaust either didn’t happen or was exaggerated. It may be difficult to link this directly to FB or to harm or violence but it’s hard to believe there is no linkage. [2]

Facebook allows toxic speech and dangerous misinformation to spread largely unchecked on its monopolistic platform. Engagement with FB posts (i.e., liking, sharing, or commenting on them) that are from sources that routinely publish misleading or false content tripled from 2016 to 2020, exceeding the rate of increase for outlets that uphold traditional journalistic standards.

This affects and infects our public discourse and knowledge base, undermining the health of our democracy. However, stopping it runs counter to Facebook’s economic interests because increased activity, regardless of its content, is what increases FB’s revenue. [3]

Over the summer and early fall of 2020, the Digital New Deal (DND) project examined engagement with posts on FB and analyzed the reliability of the posts’ sources. It partnered with NewsGuard, a non-partisan service that rates news and information sources for their accuracy. (See note on its methodology at the end of this post.) The DND project focused on 721 deceptive information sources and compared them with a selected group of non-deceptive sources. It categorized the sources into three types:

  1. False Content Producers: repeatedly publish verifiably false content (396 sources)
  2. Manipulators: fail to gather and present information responsibly (325 sources)
  3. Trustworthy Outlets (46 selected sources for comparison)

Engagement with posts from type 1 and 2 sources (referred to as deceptive sources) has grown 242% since 2016. Engagement with posts from Manipulators (type 2 sources) represents 84% of all deceptive source engagement and has grown from 390 million engagement actions in the 3rd quarter of 2016 to 1,520 million in the 3rd quarter of 2020 (almost fourfold). The deceptive sources with the most engagement on FB, including the top five in each of types 1 and 2, promote right-wing or “conservative” politics.

These deceptive sources, masquerading as news outlets, are spreading false information, manipulative messaging, and concocted conspiracies that degrade democratic discourse. This harms the health of our democracy because it undermines informed participation by citizens and voters. [4]

The top ten deceptive sources are all of the Manipulator type and account for 62% of FB engagement interactions with deceptive sources, while the other 711 deceptive sites are responsible for 38% of these interactions. Fox was the most frequent source in the Manipulator category. It is rated more positively by NewsGuard than many other deceptive sources because it sometimes does correct errors, avoids deceptive headlines, labels advertising, and discloses its ownership and financing. Other examples of Manipulators are the Daily Wire, Breitbart, and The Blaze.

My next post will provide even more damning evidence that FB’s goal is not to bring people together, to provide accurate information, or to fight sensationalism, misinformation, and polarization as Zuckerberg has said, but rather to maximize user engagement and profits, and perhaps to promote right-wing politics and curry favor with those in power in Washington, D.C. The post will highlight FB’s 2018 changes to its News Feed algorithm that determines what information or disinformation is presented to FB users. It will also present some ways to address FB’s monopolistic power and its dissemination of false and harmful content.

Note on the methodology for rating information sources used in the DND study summarized above: NewsGuard rates online news outlets based on nine criteria of responsible journalism including:

  • Does not repeatedly publish false content (22 points)
  • Gathers and presents information responsibly (18 points)
  • Regularly corrects or clarifies errors (12.5 points)
  • Handles the difference between news and opinion responsibly (12.5 points)
  • Avoids deceptive headlines (10 points)
  • Website discloses ownership and financing (7.5 points)
  • Clearly labels advertising (7.5 points)
  • Reveals who is in charge, including any possible conflicts of interest (5 points)
  • The site provides the names of content creators, along with either contact or biographical information (5 points)

Outlets receive points for passing a given criteria or they receive zero for failing. A total score of less than 60 merits a Red rating, meaning the site fails to adhere to basic journalistic standards.

[1]      The Associated Press, 10/12/20, “Facebook bans Holocaust denial, distortion posts”

[2]      Frenkel, S., 10/13/20, “Facebook bans Holocaust denial content,” The Boston Globe from The New York Times

[3]      Alba, D., 10/13/20, “False info thriving on social media,” The Boston Globe from The New York Times

[4]      Kornbluh, K., Goldstein, A., & Weiner, E., 10/12/20, “New study by Digital New Deal finds engagement with deceptive outlets higher on Facebook today than run-up to 2016 election,” Digital New Deal, German Marshall Fund of the United States (https://www.gmfus.org/blog/2020/10/12/new-study-digital-new-deal-finds-engagement-deceptive-outlets-higher-facebook-today)

2 comments

  1. amylippitt@gmail.com · · Reply

    Hi John, I tried to post this comment, but not sure it went: You might want to check out this NPR podcast about false info on the internet

    https://podcasts.apple.com/us/podcast/ted-radio-hour/id523121474?i=1000496568099

    1. Thanks, Amy. Yes, your comment posted both times. I look forward to listening to this podcast. Take care.

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