Where do you get your news? If you still open a regional newspaper over breakfast every morning, you're in the minority. If you only go to news websites like CNN or the BBC, you might be surprised to hear that you're still in the minority. A little over half of the people who live in the United States get their news from social media sites like Facebook and Twitter, and by searching specific topics in Google.
To different degrees on each platform, the news stories you see on those sites is determined by who your friends are, what you've clicked and commented on in the past, where you live, and other demographic information. So, like most of us, what you see news-wise on your profile pages or search is a mix of what those sites think you'll click on. The feeds are not directly edited by a human editor, so you see a mix of stories from reputable sites, alternative organizations, and potentially, even fake news sites.
Fake news sites shouldn't be confused with independent publications, which have always been an important element of American media, often playing the role of watchdog and ferreting out stories the big news organizations miss. Fake news sites are unscrupulous organizations are looking for clicks purely to make money, so they create stories that are just real enough to be believable (maybe) with the only goal being to generate income. (So they are, essentially, fiction, but they are presented as real news to make their sites money.)
President Obama called the stories a "dust cloud of nonsense" and a Buzzfeed investigation found that viral fake news outperformed real news on Facebook. Of the top five fake stories, four attacked Hillary Clinton and one praised Trump. (I saw that latter one, about how Pope Francis endorsed Trump.)
Producing fictional stories that play on people's fears and conspiracy theories isn't new, and it isn't illegal; but on social media sites, it's not always easy to tell whether a site is presenting an alternative perspective or straight-up fakery. And so, these fake stories can go viral and work their way into the algorithm of what might pop up in your newsfeed. Some think these stories and other like them may have influenced how this election turned out.
What's the solution?
Facebook's CEO Mark Zuckerberg, when questioned about why he continued to let known fake news sites proliferate, was defensive about the subject, calling it a "crazy idea" that fake stories might have influenced voters.
Meanwhile, a group of college students at a hackathon at Princeton University developed a Chrome browser extension called FiB: Stop Living a Lie. The software simply adds a small tag in the corner of a given post showing whether a given post is verified.
How does it work? De Nabanita De, a master's student in computer science at UMass Amherst, told Business Insider:
"It classifies every post, be it pictures (Twitter snapshots), adult content pictures, fake links, malware links, fake news links as verified or non-verified using artificial intelligence."
"For links, we take into account the website's reputation, also query it against malware and phishing websites database and also take the content, search it on Google/Bing, retrieve searches with high confidence and summarize that link and show to the user. For pictures like Twitter snapshots, we convert the image to text, use the usernames mentioned in the tweet, to get all tweets of the user and check if current tweet was ever posted by the user."
And those students aren't the only ones. Daniel Sieradski created what he calls the B.S. Detector: "I built this in about an hour yesterday after reading [Mark Zuckerberg's] BS about not being able to flag fake news sites. Of course you can. It just takes having a spine to call out nonsense," Sieradski wrote on Product Hunt, where you can download the extension. "This is just a proof of concept at this point, but it works well enough."
After continued criticism, as well as the simple tools developed by coders in response to the problem, Facebook has now done an about-face and updated its Audience Network policy, which had only previously cautioned against fakery when it came to advertising claims.
“We have updated the policy to explicitly clarify that this applies to fake news,” a Facebook spokesman said in a statement. “Our team will continue to closely vet all prospective publishers and monitor existing ones to ensure compliance.”
And Facebook's not the only one.
“Moving forward, we will restrict ad serving on pages that misrepresent, misstate or conceal information about the publisher, the publisher’s content or the primary purpose of the web property,” Andrea Faville, a Google spokeswoman, said in a statement.
Twitter has also been cracking down. Whether the fake news truly influenced the election last week, we'll probably never know, but at least we can work to make sure it doesn't influence the next one.