A growing amount of Americans look to Facebook Inc (NASDAQ:FB) for the bulk of their news information, and the company faces an existential crisis over the fact that fake news is often the most shared, promoted, and consumed on its platform.
As news quality degrades, so too does people’s understanding of the world around them. From Vox:
The result has been a disaster for the public’s understanding of current affairs. Reporters have come under increasing pressure to write “clickbait” articles that pander to readers’ worst impulses. Too-good-to-check stories gain more traction online than stories that are balanced and thoroughly reported. That has worsened the nation’s political polarization and lowered the quality of democratic discourse.
When the focus is on engagement over accuracy, the opportunity to exploit users’ preconceived notions rises dramatically. Foreign entrepreneurs are seizing on the opportunity and creating hundreds of “news” sites publishing false information simply to maximize the share factor. From Buzzfeed:
Over the past year, the Macedonian town of Veles (population 45,000) has experienced a digital gold rush as locals launched at least 140 US politics websites. These sites have American-sounding domain names such as WorldPoliticus.com, TrumpVision365.com, USConservativeToday.com, DonaldTrumpNews.co, and USADailyPolitics.com. They almost all publish aggressively pro-Trump content aimed at conservatives and Trump supporters in the US.
These companies are knowingly publishing mistruths and fabricating entire events:
“Yes, the info in the blogs is bad, false, and misleading but the rationale is that ‘if it gets the people to click on it and engage, then use it,’” said a university student in Veles who started a US politics site, and who agreed to speak on the condition that BuzzFeed News not use his name.
Whether conservative or liberal, these fake articles proliferate widely, and a growing number of people are demanding Facebook do something about it. The company’s options range from hiring more editors, to increasing transparency about why articles appear in users’ feeds, to providing an opt-out option that would screen out news sources that seem illegitimate.
For its part, Facebook maintains it’s not a media company. It’s simply a platform for people to share things. But when an increasing percentage of shared “news” is objectively false, it becomes clear that this is a major problem the company should take big measures to quickly fix.
Facebook shares fell 122.36 -1.86 (-1.50%) in Wednesday afternoon trading. Year-to-date, FB has gained 16.95%, versus a much smaller 5.36% rise in the benchmark S&P 500 during the same period.