Is Facebook in Danger of Becoming the Next Taboola?

For months leading up to the election, a slow trickle of angst surrounded Facebook’s fake news problem. After the stunning election of Donald Trump last week, that trickle turned into a deluge of anger.

Facebook, in Cross Hairs After Election, Is Said to Question Its Influence,” wrote The New York Times. “Donald Trump Won Because of Facebook,” preached Max Read in New York magazine. And on Wednesday, BuzzFeed News reported: “Viral Fake Election News Outperformed Real News On Facebook In Final Months Of The US Election.”

Facebook had already been battling critics who accused it of ignoring its role as a media company. (Both founder Mark Zuckerberg and COO Sheryl Sandberg repeatedly tell the press “Facebook is a tech company, not a media company.”) Facebook also came under fire earlier in the year for censoring the so-called “Napalm girl” Pulitizer-winning photograph, fired its Trending News team after accusations of bias from conservative pundits, endured a wave of advertiser anger after admitting (twice) it had been reporting skewed numbers, and weathered a plethora of stories accusing the platform of creating damaging “filter bubbles” and giving voice to hyper-partisan pages that exploited people’s fears.

But an under-the-radar BuzzFeed News report may prove to be most damaging to the company’s reputation.

The BuzzFeed news team painstakingly recorded posts from a variety of hyper-partisan Facebook pages (as well as a few controls, such as Politico and ABC News) over a seven-day period. The findings were stunning: While zero percent of mainstream news outlets published something considered “mostly false,” 12.3 percent of right-wing pages and 4.4 percent of left-wing pages published false news.

Disturbingly, there was a strong correlation between fake news and engagement. Forty-six percent of Freedom Daily’s posts were classified as either misleading or false—and the page recorded by far the highest engagement among the right-wing publishers in the report.

In general, BuzzFeed News found that:

“The mostly true posts typically did not perform as well as ones that were mostly false, were a mixture of true and false, or had no factual content. The more overtly partisan, misleading, or opinion-driven a post was, the more engagement the post would see, according to our data.”

A separate BuzzFeed News report on Macedonian teenagers who use right-wing Facebook pages as ad-revenue mills revealed perhaps the most disturbing result of all:

“A post titled “Hillary Clinton In 2013: ‘I Would Like To See People Like Donald Trump Run For Office; They’re Honest And Can’t Be Bought.'” The post is a week old and has racked up an astounding 480,000 shares, reactions, and comments on Facebook. (To put that into perspective, the New York Times’ exclusive story that revealed Donald Trump declared a $916 million loss on his 1995 income tax returns generated a little more than 175,000 Facebook interactions in a month.)”

The damaging potential of fake news

It’s important to note that, from a revenue perspective, Facebook is doing just fine. The company reported massive profits in Q3 and has shown no signs of slowing down.

But it’s worth asking if premium advertisers, the kind that Facebook has tried to court with features such as its native video player and Facebook Live, might be turned off by the company’s reputation for fake or otherwise “trashy” content.

We’ve already seen that happen with two similar companies: Outbrain and Taboola. The content recommendation platforms once ubiquitous across the web are increasingly being eschewed by major media companies (who either remove the feature altogether or build their own). Why? Because publishers are wary of running the platforms’ notoriously clickbaiting, fake, and scam-filled links against their own content.

Programmatic platforms face similar criticism from advertisers for the lack of control. A premium company such as Coca-Cola, for example, likely does not want its ads appearing next to a website known for denying the Holocaust.

Yet on Facebook, that scenario is turning into the norm. Advertiser and publisher content gets placed in the same space as the fake clickbait overtaking News Feeds.

A solvable problem?

Facebook previously made efforts to remove clickbait from its platform. In 2014, the company announced it was cracking down. It did so again this August.

But there is little evidence that the algorithmic changes, which rely on a metric similar to “bounce rates” to identify clickbait, have affected the hyper-partisan content mills. As BuzzFeed News found, people don’t view these stories as clickbait. In fact, they’re more engaging than any other kind of news story.

This problem sits at the crux of Facebook’s business model: The ultimate goals are building its user base and maximizing time spent on the platform. As a result, the News Feed is built to prioritize engagement, no matter the quality of the content.

In other words, fake news and hyper-partisanship is good for Facebook’s business. As tech analyst Ben Thompson wrote, “What is far more damaging—and far more engaging, and thus lucrative for Facebook—is all of us in our own virtual neighborhoods of our own making, liking opinions that tell us we’re right instead of engaging with viewpoints that make us question our assumptions.”

It seems that Facebook—or at least a part of the company—has finally decided that fake news needs to be addressed. Though Zuckerberg brushed off the idea that Facebook fake news could have influenced the election, BuzzFeed News reports that a “renegade” group of employees is building a solution—and that hundreds of employees have expressed misgivings about company leadership ignoring the problem.

Fake news is something that Google, despite some cracks in the system, dealt with a long time ago in its search algorithm. Google also announced it is pulling its ad network from fake news sites. Naturally, Facebook also announced a plan to pull its Audience Network ad network from fake news sites.

But to really work toward a solution, Facebook should follow Google’s lead and purge fake news from its News Feed as well. If it doesn’t, it risks being pulled into the swamp—and losing advertisers in the process.

Image by Unsplash / CC Zero

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