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The good news is that Facebook is finally starting to get out in front of the “fake news” controversy threatening to put a damper on social media. Most recently, the company issued a series of ten tips to spot fake news. And Facebook has also been making it easier than ever before for users to flag potential fake news.
Unfortunately, the problem may have less to do with a few bad actors trying to spread fake news, and more to do with the broken nature of digital publishing in general. In short, publishing on the web is all about volume. And the way you get to crank up that volume is by having content “go viral.”
Facebook’s tips for spotting fake news
That’s why there’s absolutely no stopping fake news. Yes, it helps to have a few human editors review the content on Facebook and put up a huge red warning sign every time something might be false. The grand idea coming from Facebook HQ in Silicon Valley is that “the crowd,” acting together, can help to stomp out fake news.
But think about things for just a second. For example, take the first tip that Facebook gave us – “Be Skeptical of Headlines.” Facebook strongly counsels us to question things if the headline makes a shocking claim. Given that most people share articles based solely on the headline and not the actual story itself, that would seem to make a lot of sense.
The more things change, the more they stay the same
However, if you’ve found yourself in the supermarket checkout line and scanning the headlines of the National Inquirer or other trashy tabloid, you’ll quickly realize that the fake news phenomenon is just a variant of an old stunt to get people to consume content.
Unfortunately, we haven’t come too far from the days of the famous New York Post headline, “Headless Body Found in Topless Bar.” The only thing that’s really different now is that we have Photoshop to manipulate images. Think about what you click on these days – headlines that promise “you won’t believe what happened next” or “No. 7 on this list will truly stun you.” As much as you want to NOT click, you end up clicking. That’s the game in digital publishing these days. The tease, the come-on, the click bait – it’s all part of the game.
Quite frankly, all of Facebook’s 10 tips for dealing with fake news can be boiled down to a single maxim of common sense: “You can’t believe everything you read.” That’s something that you should have learned in junior high English class. If you still believe that everything you read online is “real,” then you probably also still believe in the Easter Bunny. Steven Colbert was right – we live in an age of “truthiness.”
What can Facebook do to fix fake news?
The only way Facebook can fix fake news is by fixing the underlying digital publishing model that relies on shares, likes and mentions to get page views. After all, page views are what drive advertising. If you had to boil the whole digital publishing game down to a single equation, it would be: PAGE VIEWS = ADVERTISING DOLLARS = REVENUE. In short, if you don’t get page views, you won’t get ad dollars, and if you don’t get ad dollars, you won’t have a way of paying people.
Thus, there is a clear and compelling reason for publishers to use Facebook, and that’s because Facebook is a low-cost distribution mechanism for content. That’s why shady operators are using the most salacious headlines possible – it’s what drives clicks and gets them web traffic. And web traffic is what helps them survive.
See? The whole system is broken. Facebook, of course, has no real incentive to fix the system. It’s hard to fix the system when you are part of the system. That’s not really the fault of Facebook. It’s like asking the New York Times to fix the model of print media. Sometimes, it’s just easier to start afresh rather than trying to keep a system going when it’s time for change.