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‘Fake news’ on Facebook: Did it swing the US election?

LONDON: Heard the one about the Clinton Foundation buying $137 million worth of illegal arms? Or the Democratic candidate’s $200 million mansion in the Maldives, or how a fifth of her campaign was funded by ‘terrorists’? And what about the Pope’s public endorsement of Donald Trump…?

There’s every chance you have heard these stories — all of which are distinctly false — given that they have attracted many millions of readers online.
But while they may sound like jokes, these hoax online articles are anything but funny.
In the fallout of Trump’s surprise election win, many are pointing the finger at services like Facebook and Google for their role in helping spread "fake news" stories — and the very real impact that may have had on the US election.
As one New York magazine article put it bluntly: “Donald Trump Won Because of Facebook”. The argument is that the likes of Facebook — along with less popular social platforms — allowed people to share fake news articles widely, allowing completely fabricated reports to appear on people’s timelines with a prominence similar to perfectly legitimate news stories.
Even the outgoing President Barack Obama has criticized how “crazy conspiracy theorizing” is spread on social networks like Facebook.
Google also came under fire, with some questioning how its algorithms came to favor some false news stories. As reported by Mediaite, a search for “final election vote count 2016” earlier this month brought up a news story from a site called 70News — which falsely claimed that Trump was ahead of Hillary Clinton in the "popular vote".
It is easy to see how fake news could help influence public opinion, especially in such a divisive election campaign as that seen recently in the US.
And Google and Facebook are taking action amid mounting criticism over the impact of fake news and the vast power they wield as global information distributors. 
“The goal of Search is to provide the most relevant and useful results for our users. In this case we clearly didn’t get it right, but we are continually working to improve our algorithms,” a Google spokesperson told Arab News.
“We have updated our publisher policies and now prohibit Google ads from being placed on misrepresentative content, just as we disallow misrepresentation in our ads policies. Moving forward, we will restrict ad serving on pages that misrepresent, misstate, or conceal information about the publisher, the publisher’s content, or the primary purpose of the web property.”
Facebook is also reported to have updated its terms and conditions to specifically clarify its policy on fake news.
“We take misinformation seriously,” a Facebook spokesperson said. “Our goal is to connect people with the stories they find most meaningful, and we know people want accurate information. We’ve been working on this problem for a long time and we take this responsibility seriously. We’ve made significant progress, but there is more work to be done.”
There is no denying that fake news is prevalent online. Some sites have less-than-obvious declarations they are "satire" or "fantasy" news sites; the more shady services make elaborate efforts in trying to pass themselves off as legitimate news sources.
And there is no denying that many millions of people get exposed to such fake news stories through platforms such as Facebook and Google.
But it’s less certain how much blame such online services should carry for this.
As the Facebook spokesperson said: “While Facebook played a part in this election, it was just one of many ways people received their information — and was one of the many ways people connected with their leaders, engaged in the political process and shared their views.”
Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook’s CEO, himself earlier this month pledged to do more to tackle hoax stories — while insisting that the spread of fake news on the social network did not impact the result of the US presidential election.
“Of all the content on Facebook, more than 99 percent of what people see is authentic. Only a very small amount is fake news and hoaxes. The hoaxes that do exist are not limited to one partisan view, or even to politics. Overall, this makes it extremely unlikely hoaxes changed the outcome of this election in one direction or the other,” Zuckerberg wrote on his Facebook page.
“That said, we don’t want any hoaxes on Facebook. Our goal is to show people the content they will find most meaningful, and people want accurate news. We have already launched work enabling our community to flag hoaxes and fake news, and there is more we can do here. We have made progress, and we will continue to work on this to improve further.”
Harris Breslow, an associate professor in the Department of Mass Communication at the American University of Sharjah, said that the extent of blame that can be leveled against sites like Facebook was “a tricky question”.
“On the one hand Facebook and other platforms are not responsible for generating the content. On the other hand, these platforms are responsible for its distribution,” Breslow told Arab News.
“Ultimately Facebook and other platforms are going to have to do something far more proactive concerning false news as this problem gains more understanding and more widespread knowledge amongst their user bases.”
But this is easier said than done, Prof. Breslow points out. For starters, it may not even be possible for social media websites to analyze every piece of information they host. And if such sites respond to specific complaints, they run the risk of being “perceived as biased or partisan”.
What is clear, however, is that fake news is on the rise in what has been coined the “post-truth” era.
“It preceded the Trump phenomenon by a couple of years. It is most pronounced in the US and amongst Americans,” Breslow said. “There was also a great deal of fake news associated with the Brexit campaign — in this case the fake news tended to be on the side or in the service of the exit argument at the expense of the stay argument.”
Fake news is however less of an issue in the Arab world, the academic noted, because of the strong government enforcement and laws governing what is posted online.
But its global spread speaks volumes — and has grave repercussions for the dominance of the “mainstream” media, Breslow added.
“The popularity of false news and the post-truth era confirms what many social media scholars and scholars of new media have been saying for some time: The era of the mass media channel and the mass media audience is over,” he said.