Mark Zuckerberg to include greater technological automation to detect fake news on Facebook. (Photo: iStock)

Facebook’s Battle Against Fake News Notches Uneven Scorecard

(Bloomberg) -- A self-described liberal, Trenton Harris took a job writing for a website called the Conservative Daily Post, and he says he got a front-row view of the fake-news industry.

Writers were expected to produce four lengthy articles a day, he learned, at $20 apiece. There was no time to interview experts or check facts, he said, and stories had to be slanted to favor President Donald Trump.

“It didn’t matter if the article was correct or if it could be proven,” said Harris, 28, who used a pen name. He quit after a couple of months early last year. Executives for the website didn’t respond to messages seeking comment.

Conservative Daily Post would seem a ripe target in Facebook’s quest to combat fake news. At least 10 of its articles -- including an account of American students forced to wear hijabs -- have been debunked by the fact-check site Snopes. Nonetheless, the site and some others like it have maintained resilient traffic on Facebook, even as the social-media giant’s efforts have contributed to the shutdown of websites.

“Facebook is trying, but they need to add more manpower,” said Brooke Binkowski, managing editor of Snopes, which checks about 10 articles a day on Facebook.

Facebook’s inconsistency in the U.S. doesn’t bode well for its efforts in countries like Sri Lanka, where fake news has triggered violent clashes and where Facebook doesn’t have enough moderators who speak the local language. On Tuesday, Facebook released for the first time a set of community standards that includes a section on “false news.” The document largely recaps the company’s prior announced plans regarding such reports. Facebook won’t comment on why some sites appear to be affected more than others.

Rather than becoming what Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg called “arbiters of truth,” the company opted to work with third-party fact-checkers like Snopes and PolitiFact under a plan announced shortly after the 2016 election. The company also said it would make it easier for users to report fake stories.

Boosting Efforts

Critics said the company wasn’t moving fast enough, and Facebook in August announced that publishers repeatedly dinged by fact-checkers would be blocked from advertising their posts and might see their stories demoted on followers’ newsfeeds.

In January, the Menlo Park, California-based company began overhauling its newsfeed algorithm to prioritize content from users’ friends and family over content from media outlets. Facebook said it would prioritize information from publishers that remain on the social network by measuring how “trustworthy” they are, which will be based on a survey of U.S. Facebook users.

And this month, Zuckerberg told members of Congress he has committed to tasking as many as 20,000 workers with reviewing content and security risks.

The company’s actions have indeed walloped some publishers. Freedom Daily, for instance, had been garnering millions of Facebook “engagements” -- the total of likes, comments and shares -- each month, according to BuzzSumo, a social-media analytics company owned by Brandwatch. (One story falsely claimed the driver who plowed into counter-protesters in Charlottesville was a Democrat and “Antifa terrorist.” Another bogus story said Muslim refugees working at Starbucks likely contaminated coffee with fecal matter.)

This year, the site’s traffic has plunged. By early March, it shut down. The site’s editor, Jeff Rainforth, didn’t respond to messages seeking comment.

Occasional Hits

Some sites that have seen an overall drop in Facebook traffic are still able to generate occasional viral hits with bogus stories. YourNewsWire.com, a Los Angeles-based site, saw its Facebook engagements fall to 1 million in March, according to BuzzSumo, down about half from its average over the last 12 months. Some of the site’s most recent viral stories have been debunked, including a March piece that said George Soros paid March for Our Lives protesters $300 apiece.

Sean Adl-Tabatabai, editor-in-chief of YourNewsWire.com, didn’t respond to questions about accuracy. But he said: “Some people don’t like that we aren’t promoting the lines of the mainstream media,” and he argued that Facebook shouldn’t stifle traffic to sites like his. “Ultimately, it’s about free speech.”

Falling traffic to pro-Trump sites has sparked concerns among some conservatives that right-leaning sites are being unfairly targeted by Facebook’s changes. When Facebook told pro-Trump personalities known as Diamond & Silk that their content was deemed “unsafe,” conservative media leveled charges of censorship; few seemed appeased when Facebook said it had erred and that traffic to the commentators’ page was unaffected. There “appears to be a pervasive pattern of political bias,” GOP Senator Ted Cruz of Texas said to Zuckerberg during one of this month’s congressional hearings.

Zuckerberg denied any bias -- and at least one conservative publisher agrees. Onan Coca, who has helped run sites like EagleRising.com, says he sees the changes hitting both sides. “It looks like Facebook is just trying to get better control of their site,” he says.

16 Years

To be sure, some left-wing hyper-partisan sites have also seen falling Facebook traffic. For instance, PoliticusUSA is garnering 80 percent fewer Facebook engagements than it did last summer, according to BuzzSumo. The news site misleadingly reported this month that Trump asked for the constitution to be changed so he can be president for 16 years. Jason Easley, the publisher of PoliticusUSA, didn’t respond to requests for comment.

Facebook concedes it still has a ways to go to curtail disinformation. Zuckerberg told members of Congress this month that “we need to take a more proactive role and a broader view of our responsibility.”

The case of Conservative Daily Post may illustrate the challenges. In July 2016, after police officers were shot in Baton Rouge and Dallas, it published an exclusive: An “illegal alien” purportedly named Maria Englesia working at a McDonald’s in Alabama had been fired after refusing to serve police officers and declaring she “didn’t serve pigs.” The story was false; an accompanying photo supposedly of Englesia was actually a random McDonald’s worker taken from a stock photo site, Snopes discovered.

Beauty Queen’s Lawsuit

Alleged deception didn’t end there. One of the site’s popular writers was purportedly Laura Hunter, a beauty queen who won the 2016 Ms. World Pageant; her photograph and byline were splashed atop articles bashing immigrants and praising Trump. Last year, a bewildered Hunter sued Conservative Daily Post’s Las Vegas-based operators, saying she’d never written for the site. The case has been closed; neither side responded to requests for comment.

Despite the apparent fakery, the site’s traffic soared and has remained fairly steady amid Facebook’s changes. Its articles generated about 900,000 Facebook engagements in March, down from an average of 1.2 million over the past 12 months, according to BuzzSumo. (Its most widely-shared article in March -- declaring that a Rhode Island governor’s order allows the federal government to seize its citizens’ guns -- was labeled “wildly inaccurate” by fact checkers.)

Conservative Daily Post’s popularity has persisted even as two of the site’s affiliated Facebook pages, which typically drive traffic to websites, have seen a 90 percent drop in popularity since last summer, according to NewsWhip, a social-media research and analytics company. It’s difficult to determine exactly why some sites have been particularly resilient, but it could be because readers share their articles organically on their own Facebook pages, said Gabriele Boland, NewsWhip’s manager of content strategy and communications.

Facebook, which has no policy against people sharing links to untrue content, “is in a tricky place,” Boland says. “They can’t fall into being Big Brother and censoring what people are sharing.”

Harris, the former Conservative Daily Post writer, isn’t sure how the site has evaded Facebook’s crackdown. After reading hate mail that poured in after several of his stories, he’s just glad to be gone. “It was like going down the rabbit hole,” he says. “If you say it enough, it starts to become true to people.”

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