Ever since the term was popularised by then-presidential candidate Donald Trump — and subsequently appropriated by Democrats — the stupid controversy over "fake news" has become a swirling vortex of pointlessness that refuses to go all the way down the drain. Now everyone's calling legitimate articles and opinion pieces that contradict their own prejudices "fake," as though disagreeing with something implicitly means it was manufactured out of whole cloth.
Meanwhile, shouting "fake news" has done nothing to counter the explosion in social media-powered viral sites with names like the "Angry Patriot Movement" or "Political Garbage Chute," many of which are run by hoaxers who have realised it's embarrasingly easy to cash in on American ignorance.
Here's yet more evidence we are in for this crap for the long haul. A recent study from Yale University researchers has found Facebook's new feature which tags posts as "disputed by third-party fact-checkers" has "only a very modest impact on people's perceptions," Nieman Lab wrote.
The team had 7,534 participants judge the accuracy of seven different headlines, some of which were tagged, in an attempt to identify inaccurate articles. They found the disputed tag only raised participants' accuracy in identifying incorrect information by about 3.7 per cent, per Politico.
For Trump supporters and 18-25-year-olds, the tag actually backfired. That's possibly because they assumed Facebook would have flagged the articles as inaccurate if they were, something simply not possible given the scale of the problem and the limited resources Facebook has devoted to the problem.
Here's the relevant section of the study flagged by Nieman Labs:
The warnings were at least somewhat effective: fake news headlines tagged as disputed in the treatment were rated as less accurate than those in the control (warning effect), d=.20, z=6.91, p<.001. However, we also found evidence of a backfire: fake news headlines that were not tagged in the treatment were rated as more accurate than those in the control (backfire effect), d=.06, z=2.09, p=.037. This spillover was not confined to fake news: real news stories in the treatment were also rated as more accurate than real news stories in the control (real news spillover), d=.09, z=3.19, p=.001.... Although both groups evidenced a warning effect (Clinton, d=.21, z=3.19, p=.001; Trump, d=.16, z=2.84, p=.004) and a real news spillover (Clinton, d=.10, z=2.75, p=.006; Trump, d=.07, z=2.09, p=.083), the backfire effect was only present for those who preferred Trump, d=.11, z=2.58, p=.010, and not those who preferred Clinton, d=.02, z=.49, p=.62 (although this difference between Trump and Clinton supporters was itself only marginally significant: meta-analytic estimate of interaction effect between condition and preferred candidate, z=1.68, p=.094). Furthermore, the backfire was roughly the same magnitude as the warning effect for Trump supporters…
…while participants 26 years and older showed a significant warning effect (N=4466), d=.23, z=7.33, p<.001, and no significant backfire effect, d=.03, z=.84, p=.402, the opposite was true for those 18-25 (N=805): for these younger subjects, the warning had no significant effect, d=.08, z=1.10, p=.271, and there was a relatively large backfire effect, d=.26, z=3.58, p<.001
(Note the paper has not yet been independently peer-reviewed, but does boast a fairly large sample size.)
Still, even if the impact was larger, there's something here which just doesn't scan. It's impossible to verify the entire internet, let alone every viral Facebook link. The social media company has paired with a number of fact-checking organisations including Politifact, FactCheck.org and Snopes. Scaling it further would put Facebook in a role it doesn't want to be in: taking a cost-intensive role in finger-wagging at its users.
Like its oft-criticised moderation strategy, which critics have targeted for more or less being the bare minimum, the effort could be interpreted as just a way for Facebook to cover its butt as it traffics in and profits off whatever its users choose to post.
According to Snopes managing editor Brooke Binkowski, Facebook definitely realises the problem can only be managed, not eliminated.
"I suspect that it is not so much that they are in need of these particular stories to be debunked given that they appear to be generated by algorithm, but rather that they are using the stories that we debunk to build smarter algorithms that perhaps privilege real over fake news," Binkowski told Gizmodo.
"In other words, I do not feel as though our efforts are much more than a drop in the bucket but I do think that we are adding to a larger effort to contextualize this information and actual news," she added. "... What I am hoping to see, and what I am actually seeing, is that other news organisations are taking our lead and contextualizing their fact checking ... Which is exactly, I think, what Facebook is trying to do as well."
But this isn't necessarily incongruous with Facebook preemptively deflecting criticism before the next time something completely bullshit spreads to millions of its users.
Moreover, the definition of "fake news" is intentionally nebulous and self-serving. Is it inaccurate reporting? A fact presented without proper context, or simply context the reader would have preferred be included instead? Nefarious Russian (or George Soros-funded, depending on your bent) psychological warfare? Or just something the reader hates? Because for the current moment, all of these fact-checking efforts are now inexorably tied to this out of control, politicized controversy.
Binkowski, who noted critics have long attacked Snopes on partisan grounds, agreed there's no easy solution.
"I know [Facebook] does not want to remove fake news or hoax news or disinformation from their platform entirely, because who is the arbiter of what is fake news?" Binkowski said. "But I do know that they want to drown it out with stories that have actually been vetted."
Unlike companies like Google which have an interest in providing verifiable information, New School media design professor David Carroll told the Washington Post, sites like Facebook are "about attention, not so much intention."
Facebook could "lose revenue if it shuts down a huge number of fake sites," he added. Carroll thinks a better solution might be to get major players to agree to an independently crowdsourced, ad blocker-style list of fake sites, which is unlikely for the aforementioned revenue issue.
This problem isn't going away, though.
Seeing as a certain brand of conservative has increasingly taken joy in trolling for trolling's sake, which includes deliberately spreading misinformation in the hopes it makes liberals angry, it's probably a fair bet Facebook's disputed tag could become a badge of honour for right-wing producers and consumers of content. So too could this happen with liberals obsessed with, say, Trump-Russia conspiracies.
Then we're where we started, except for what it appears to be a minority of users who are already trying to ditch the echo chamber in the first place. If the problem is that people don't care about facts in the first place, then trying to convince them what is or isn't a fact is tilting at windmills.