With No Way to Avoid It, Facebook Faces up to the Reality of Fake News

Among the many factors that distinguish the art and science of online advertising—with placing the right message before the right viewer at the right time the ultimate goal—context has emerged lately as one deserving greater attention. There’s more than what, who, and when to consider; we’re realizing that where matters, too. And the unwelcome phenomenon raising awareness of context in the mobile ad universe is, of course, fake news. There’s no question that fake news has grown into a massive hazard to be avoided by publishers and advertisers alike. The question is, can it really be avoided?

As it is with nearly everything on the internet, Facebook is deeply involved in the fake news quandary. In late 2016 into early 2017, when awareness of fake news was rising, the social media network dismissed any suggestion that it might be part of the problem. CEO Mark Zuckerberg, echoed by other Facebook executives, said that his company had no desire to become “the arbiter of truth,” maintaining that Facebook is a technology platform, not a publisher or media company. But that position has crumbled, and Facebook has been forced to address the truth about its role in distributing fake news.

“Giving everyone a voice has historically been a very positive force for public discourse,” Zuckerberg wrote in a letter to the Facebook community. “But the past year has also shown it may fragment our shared sense of reality.” Thus Facebook has announced several new strategies for fighting fake news (or “false news,” its preferred term), including:

• Blocking publishers who share fake news from advertising on Facebook
• Partnering with third-party fact-checkers, including the Associated Press and ABC News
• Tagging questionable items with the warning “Disputed by 3rd parties”
• Making it easier for users to report hoaxes or false stories to Facebook
• Making it harder for spammers to make money from false news
• Featuring “related articles” along with stories from news feeds to offer perspective

It’s a worthwhile effort. Adam Mosseri, vice president of product for Facebook’s news feed, has said that by “eroding trust in Facebook over the long run,” false news could be “really bad for us as an advertising business.” Moreover, among 1,002 American adults surveyed during December 2016, 42 percent held social networks (and search engines) responsible for spreading false stories across the internet, and 64 percent blamed such stories for “a great deal of confusion about the basic facts of current issues and events.”

For publishers, the danger of losing the reader’s trust is very real. Yet it’s still possible to build trust by taking the initiative to verify the accuracy of their content, checking facts and flagging untrue content. This challenge might even inspire publishers to engage more closely with readers by listening and responding to their concerns. “In a world that is becoming ever more saturated with false stories,” blogger Tom Conlon writes, publishers who hope to succeed “must market themselves as trustworthy and as the purveyors of truth.”

So, publishers, take a closer look at the context you’re offering your advertisers, and make certain you’re not leading your readers down a dark and dangerous path. You can’t be sure they’ll forgive and forget when the truth comes out.

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