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Facebook has started to flag fake news stories

Re/code logo Re/code 05/03/2017 Peter Kafka

A file photo of Donald Trump © Associated Press A file photo of Donald Trump Coming to your feed - a “disputed” label for bogus stories

That bogus story about Donald Trump your uncle posted on Facebook? It’s still staying on Facebook.

But now it’s going to get a warning label. Eventually. Sometimes.

Facebook has started pinning a “disputed” tag on fake news, as it promised it would back in December, as part of its “we’re going to fight fake news but there’s only so much we can do” campaign.

Here’s an example we can see in the wild, spotted by Gizmodo and others yesterday: A made-up story by “The Seattle Tribune”, asserting that “Trump’s Android Device Believed To Be Source Of Recent White House Leaks”.

If this one shows up in your feed, it will be accompanied with a warning label, along with links to fact-checking sites explaining why it’s not true. Of course, Facebook being Facebook, Facebook won’t say it’s “not true” - just that it’s “disputed.”

© Provided by Vox Media, Inc.

So that’s good, right? Right. It is good for Facebook to tell its 1.9 billion users that some of the stories they may see in Facebook are bogus. 

It may prevent some of them from going to a pizza place and firing their rifle.

But Facebook’s “disputed” tag also shows how gingerly the company is approaching this stuff.

To start with, there’s the tag itself, as we noted above. “Disputed” makes it sound like a bar debate about the NBA’s MVP, not “story made up from whole cloth”, even though Facebook’s own explainer says it uses the “disputed” tag for “fake” stories.

Then there’s the process that Facebook needed to go through before it would attach the “disputed” label, which it spelled out last year:

- Either Facebook’s users have to report the story as bogus, or Facebook’s software has to catch something odd about it.
- Facebook will send the story to some of the organizations that have signed on to provide free fact-checking, like Snopes and Politifact.
- If two of those fact-checkers think it’s bogus, the label goes on.

In practice, that means that the Seattle Tribune story that went up on Sunday February 26, and stayed un-labeled for several days. Snopes declared it bogus on Thursday March 2nd, but Politifact didn’t get to it until 4:28pm on Friday March 3rd.

This is a good time to point out that everything the Seattle Tribune publishes is bogus, because the Seattle Tribune is not a real newspaper.

Per the Seattle Tribune, it is a “news and entertainment satire web publication”, and “news articles contained within The Seattle Tribune are fictional”. As Snopes notes, it’s the product of Associated Media Coverage, a fake news factory that specializes in not-very convincing local news sites.

So shouldn’t/couldn’t Facebook move faster on this stuff, especially when it’s a clear-cut case like this one?

Yup! But that would require Facebook to make these kinds of (easy) calls on its own, and Facebook really doesn’t want to do that. Facebook’s “hey we’re just a platform” ideology means it’s most comfortable when someone else is telling it that something’s amiss. Even though that approach has plenty of problems

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