Raise your hand if you sometimes forget to look at the publication date of an article before you breathlessly share it with a friend? It’s ok, you’re only human. After years of promoting old and outdated content, Facebook finally wants to help you remember. According to a recent blog post by John Hegeman, VP of Feed and Stories, the company is rolling out a new app feature that will tell you if an article is over 90 days old. A notification screen will pop up with the options to either continue sharing or cancel.
According to Hegeman, Facebook’s internal research revealed that that the “timeliness of an article is an important piece of context that helps people decide what to read, trust and share.” He notes that news publishers are concerned that sharing older stories will misconstrue current events and says that this feature will help users make “informed decisions about what to share on Facebook.”
Of course, the publication date of an article provides an immediate, helpful context to the person reading it, but some ‘news’ sites have already found a way around this. A report by Popular Information details how a few users who control a small network of Facebook pages and websites circulate years-old news, but make it look like the events described in the articles happened very recently. Popular Information says:
“These sites identify incendiary stories — that are frequently months or years old — that prey on prejudice and fear. The sites then rewrite the stories with no indication that the story is old. This generates a “new” link that is able to thrive in Facebook’s algorithm.”
The report provides an example of a story that TapHaps.com published on June 19, 2020 with the headline, “Family Displays ‘Southern Pride’ Sign, Stranger Confronts Them With Gun.” However, the original story that the article cites was originally published five years ago in 2015.
Another example is a June 25, 2020 article with the headline, “Ohio Dad Fires Back After Experts Blast Him For Girl’s ‘Cruel’ Punishment.” That TapHaps article links to a Daily Mail article and an ABC 5 News Cleveland article that were both originally published in December 2018. The TapHaps article does not mention the age of the original story.
Screenshot: Joanna Nelius, TapHaps
Publication date June 25, 2020.
Screenshot: Joanna Nelius, Daily Mail
One of the sources used in the TapHaps article, originally published December 9, 2018.
Screenshot: Joanna Nelius, ABC 5 News Cleveland
Another source used in the TapHaps article, originally published December 5, 2018.
Facebook has been heavily criticised recently for allowing bogus news articles to disseminate widely across its platform. Politico reported in April 2020 that about 40% of covid-19 related claims debunked by fact-checkers remained on Facebook despite Facebook knowing they were false. Collectively, that false information had been shared across Facebook 1.7 million times…in six languages. According to a study published on Nature.com, Facebook spreads misinformation faster than any other social media site. 15% of the time, Facebook is the referrer site for untrustworthy news sources. Also, there has been a lot of questions over how much ad revenue Facebook rakes in from fake news, even in the wake of the social media company banning fake news sites from using its advertising network.
Hegeman also said that Facebook will test other notification screens, targeting posts with links that mention covid-19, and then directing users to its covid-19 information centre for authoritative health information. Seems like Facebook is taking a cue from Twitter on attempting to tackle misinformation that is spread on its social media platform, too. Will it also include a notification if someone wants to share an article without actually reading it? Only time will tell. Facebook has tried shrinking fake news stories in the past, but that didn’t work out.
There’s much more (or at least should be) that goes into deciding if a news article should be shared across social media — and that should be put onto the person sharing it. Who are we to trust Facebook or any other social media site to filter out unreliable news sources? Facebook keeps a help page with tips to spot fake news, but this new feature it’s rolling out will cover only one of the ten points on that list, not to mention anyone can still share an article without actually reading it or verifying the publication date if they see their point of view reflected in the headline. But as I just pointed out, re-writing old news articles for the sake of pushing a narrative is something that many people are unaware of because they won’t look past the headline. A little nudge by Facebook or Twitter may be a little nice reminder to do your due-diligence before sharing an article, but it ain’t gonna do jack shit to get rid of fake news.