Facebook’s Tips for Detecting Fake News Mostly Just Muddle the Problem

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“Wait, Hillary Clinton killed HOW MANY people???” Photo: Getty Images/SuperStock RM

Over the past week, Facebook has been advertising a ten-point “Tips to Spot False News” primer at the top of users’ News Feeds, designed as a complement to a new feature that allows readers to report suspicious news stories. This is good, of course — Facebook was slow to address the fake-news problem, but is clearly serious about addressing it.

But the specific advice Facebook gives to readers is also inadvertently a demonstration in just how tricky it is to offer up concrete rules about how to avoid fake news — or what “fake news” constitutes — that don’t rely on a presumption that users already have a rather high degree of news and tech savviness. The primer also shows how hard it can be to improve literacy practices by referencing concepts like accurate and believable that have, unfortunately, been thoroughly relativized by a hyperpolarized political and media environment.

Let’s dive into the specifics:

Be skeptical of headlines. False news stories often have catchy headlines in all caps with exclamation points. If shocking claims in the headline sound unbelievable, they probably are.

Exclamation marks, sure. But how does one define a “shocking” or “unbelievable” claim? One of the central problems of the “fake news” is that politically motivated reasoning renders news consumers unable to accurately assess believability. A person who has been primed to believe that Hillary Clinton is a ruthless, corrupt criminal — for example — is not going to find a claim that she had an FBI agent killed “unbelievable.”

Or:

Look closely at the URL. A phony or look-alike URL may be a warning sign of false news. Many false news sites mimic authentic news sources by making small changes to the URL. You can go to the site to compare the URL to established sources.

Unless you already possess a fairly high degree of media literacy, you likely lack the base of knowledge required to discern a “phony or look-alike URL” from a “real” one.

Investigate the source. Ensure that the story is written by a source that you trust with a reputation for accuracy. If the story comes from an unfamiliar organization, check their “About” section to learn more.

Sure, this might eliminate the “Denver Guardians” and other baldly false news sources of the world, but on the other hand: Enough people trust Breitbart for it to be a distressingly powerful news organization. And if you check a shady news outfit’s About section … “Well, it says here that this organization is ‘dedicated to unraveling the criminal conspiracy that is the Clinton Foundation.’ Sounds legit!”

Watch for unusual formatting. Many false news sites have misspellings or awkward layouts. Read carefully if you see these signs.

You know what else has awkward layouts and unusual formatting? Just about every single local TV news site, and nearly every newspaper smaller than the Los Angeles Times.

Check the evidence. Check the author’s sources to confirm that they are accurate. Lack of evidence or reliance on unnamed experts may indicate a false news story.

Same thing! Plenty of people are sharing stories they “know to be credible” that make no sense at all.

The point here isn’t to bash Facebook — and this list does contain some useful advice. But it reflects an inability on the part of media and tech elites to understand that their reading and critical-thinking habits are, very, very different from those of the everyday public. And on top of the fact that many members of that public simply haven’t been trained to read the news in a critical way, they are getting batted around by a media and internet ecosystem that, through choices in design and incentive, encourages false, misleading, hyperpartisan, and otherwise inaccurate “news.” What’s going on here is a lot deeper than people simply failing to check whether the stories they share are accurate.

Facebook’s Fake-News Tips Mostly Just Muddle the Problem