Facebook's fake news problem: What's its responsibility?

November 15, 2016 by Barbara Ortutay
In this April 12, 2016, file photo, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg speaks during the keynote address at the F8 Facebook Developer Conference in San Francisco. CEOs of major companies are taking stands about the results of the November 2016 U.S. election, a departure from the traditional model of not mixing politics with business that the major brands have long espoused. Zuckerberg said "progress does not move in a straight line." (AP Photo/Eric Risberg, File)

Facebook is under fire for failing to rein in fake and biased news stories that some believe may have swayed the presidential election. Its predicament stems from this basic conundrum: It exercises great control over the news its users see, but it declines to assume the editorial responsibility that traditional publishers do.

On Monday, Facebook took a minor step to address the issue, clarifying its advertising policy to emphasize that it won't display ads on sites that run information that is "illegal, misleading or deceptive, which includes fake ." The company said it was merely making explicit a policy that was already implied.

Its move followed a similar step by Google earlier on Monday, after the search giant acknowledged that it had let a false article about the election results slip into its list of recommended news stories.

In the case of both companies, the aim is to discourage sites by depriving them of revenue.

Facebook is also said to be facing brewing internal turmoil over its influence and what it can and should do about it.

Employees have expressed concern over Facebook's role in spreading misinformation and racist memes largely associated with the alt-right, according to The New York Times and BuzzFeed. Some have reportedly formed an unofficial task force to investigate the role the company played in the election.

Founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg, however, insists that Facebook remains a neutral technology platform where its users can share anything they want, with only a tiny fraction of it fake or problematic.

Last week, Zuckerberg called the idea that voters might have been influenced by what they saw on Facebook—fake, uber-partisan stories, such as a false one about Pope Francis endorsing Donald Trump for president—"pretty crazy."


People update to Facebook so frequently that the company has no choice but to filter what everyone sees in their news feeds—the main artery through which users see posts from their friends, family, businesses, news sources and celebrities they follow.

The company's secret algorithms are designed to deliver the posts from friends and other sources that will draw people in and lead them to read and click and "like" and share—"maximizing their engagement," in Facebook's jargon.

Facebook frequently tweaks its algorithm to improve engagement. Various changes have been aimed at shutting out sites that promote clickbait and other garbage that users say they don't want to see, even as they click on it and share away. When users are surrounded by posts they want to see, they're more likely to stick around.

That's key to Facebook's advertising business. But it can be problematic when it comes to false but highly interesting posts.

Facebook's news feed "maximizes for engagement. As we've learned in this election, bulls—t is highly engaging," former Facebook product designer Bobby Goodlatte wrote in an Election Day post. "Highly partisan, fact-light outlets" on both the right and the left, he wrote, "have no concern for the truth, and really only care for engagement. ... It's now clear that democracy suffers if our news environment incentivizes bulls—t."

Social media companies today have to acknowledge that they are news organizations, said Jeffrey Herbst, president and CEO of the Newseum, a journalism museum in Washington. "Not like news companies of the 20th century," he added. "But not just pipes where people get their news. They determine what is news."

In a post Saturday night, Zuckerberg rejected that idea.

"News and media are not the primary things people do on Facebook, so I find it odd when people insist we call ourselves a news or in order to acknowledge its importance," he wrote. "Facebook is mostly about helping people stay connected with friends and family."


Back in 2013, Zuckerberg said he wanted Facebook to be people's "own personal newspaper," one that delivers the stories most interesting and important to them. That's still the company's goal—though minus any reference to itself as a media company of any kind.

Of course, fake stuff has existed on the internet long before Facebook. And under the law, Facebook is no more responsible for what appears on its site than "the paper mills that print newspapers are responsible for their content," said Steve Jones, a professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago who studies communication technology.

At the same time, Jones said he thinks the broader issue of Facebook's responsibility is one that's going to be "debated forever."

"Even the notion of truth is something that's highly contested at this point," he said.

Explore further: Zuckerberg: 'Crazy' to say Facebook influenced election

Related Stories

Google also gets fooled by fake election news (Update)

November 15, 2016

Google's search engine highlighted an inaccurate story claiming that President-elect Donald Trump won the popular vote in last week's election, the latest example of bogus information spread by the internet's gatekeepers.

Recommended for you

Permanent, wireless self-charging system using NIR band

October 8, 2018

As wearable devices are emerging, there are numerous studies on wireless charging systems. Here, a KAIST research team has developed a permanent, wireless self-charging platform for low-power wearable electronics by converting ...

Facebook launches AI video-calling device 'Portal'

October 8, 2018

Facebook on Monday launched a range of AI-powered video-calling devices, a strategic revolution for the social network giant which is aiming for a slice of the smart speaker market that is currently dominated by Amazon and ...

Artificial enzymes convert solar energy into hydrogen gas

October 4, 2018

In a new scientific article, researchers at Uppsala University describe how, using a completely new method, they have synthesised an artificial enzyme that functions in the metabolism of living cells. These enzymes can utilize ...

1 comment

Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

not rated yet Nov 15, 2016
Facebook is taking the blame by the media, when the actual blame should be put ON THE MEDIA! The media is trying to blame fake news on small startups, when the BIG MEDIA produces the largest majority of lies! BTW, "the market is crashing, unless Hillary continues to lead in the polls." I didn't read any of that garbage on Facebook!

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.