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Facebook Unveils Plans to Stop ‘Fake News’ Outbreak

Variety logo Variety 12/15/2016 Brian Steinberg
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Facebook is making a bid to stem the “fake news” phenomenon in which critics have suggested the social-media giant has played no small part.

The company said it would partner with ABC News, Snopes.com, FactCheck.org and PolitiFact, and use them as third-party fact-checkers of articles flagged by Facebook members. Hoax stories or articles determined to be fake will be identified as such for users, and will, as a result, appear lower in Facebook news feeds, said Adam Mosseri, vice president for News Feed at Facebook, in a post made Thursday.

“It will still be possible to share these stories, but you will see a warning that the story has been disputed as you share,” the executive said. “Once a story is flagged, it can’t be made into an ad and promoted, either.” Facebook said it would work to reduce the ability of hoax publishers to post their stories as ads and had eliminated the ability to “spoof” the web domains of verified publications.

In unveiling the efforts, Facebook is navigating a tricky path. The company, which has grown in leaps and bounds in recent years as more consumers come to rely on information from social networks accessed through mobile devices, has long resisted the idea that it has become a media company of sorts, distributing content to eager audiences. During the recent U.S. election cycle, however, many users found friends and acquaintances posting items that looked like serious news articles that actually had little basis in fact, and Facebook has faced accusations that its users were ill-informed by the pass-along of hoaxes, which also caused further division among Americans.

Facebook’s role in spreading information has grown in recent years. The social-networking outlet reaches approximately 67% of U.S. adults, according to Pew Research Center, and two-thirds of its users get news from the site. That figure would mean 44% of the general U.S. adult population gets news from Facebook, according to Pew.

The recent election has been a boon for social media. About 65% of U.S. adults told Pew in a 2016 survey they learned about the election in a past week from digital sources. About 48% said they did so from news sites or apps and 44% from social networking sites.

And yet, the company has been loath to insert itself into the role of policing content.  Facebook came under fire in May and faced accusations that employees may have been censoring stories and sites that were included in its “Trending Topics” section that nods to some of the more popular conversations taking place among its users. The team that managed that section was laid off,and  fake stories were spotted surfacing there in the weeks after that decision was made.

“The problems here are complex, both technically and philosophically. We believe in giving people a voice, which means erring on the side of letting people share what they want whenever possible.  We need to be careful not to discourage sharing of opinions or to mistakenly restrict accurate content,” said Mark Zuckerberg, the founder and CEO of Facebook in a November posting. “We do not want to be arbiters of truth ourselves, but instead rely on our community and trusted third parties.”

ABC will devote about six employees to tackle fact-checking duties, said James Goldston, president of ABC News, in an interview Thursday. Other ABC News resources could also be brought to bear, depending on the situation. The four fact-checking outlets are expected to share duties and could tackle stories that deal with subjects ranging from politics to culture, he said.

“This is a significant initiative to deal with what has been an incredibly difficult and thorny issue,” said Goldston. “We have seen over the course of this election cycle the truly toxic effects of fake news,” he added, “and we do obviously believe in making sure the American people have real information on which to make their decisions.”

ABC News could turn its fact checking work into content itself, Goldston said. He expected the Disney-owned unit to create posts about its staffers’ findings as well as live-streamed programming and “weekly wrap ups.”

There is no time frame to the media partnerships, Goldston said. “Hopefully, we will do it until there isn’t a problem any more,” he said. “I don’t know how long that will take.”

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