Facebook says it is working to fight the spread of fake news on its platform after false stories claiming the 9/11 attacks were a conspiracy and that Fox News anchor Megyn Kelly was backingHillary Clinton appeared among its “trending topics.”
The trending section is supposed to include news stories that are popular among users, but the algorithms used to determine their selection have backfired on the company.
“We’ve actually spent a lot of time on News Feed trying to reduce [fake news and hoaxes’] prevalence in the ecosystem,” Adam Mosseri, who leads work on Facebook’s News Feed, said Wednesday at a tech conference. “I think we’re doing now some more similar work on trending to improve the experience in a similar way.”
Executives are scrambling to address the problem as Facebook increasingly faces questions about how it evaluates and displays content to its more than 1.7 billion monthly users. Facebook’s power over the news industry means its influence over public speech and the political process is heavily scrutinized.
The company has joined a broader effort to fight the proliferation of hoax stories online.
The project, developed by an organization called First Draft, is called a “partner network” and brings together major internet companies with name-brand news organizations, like the New York Times and Washington Post. They will work to develop a platform to work on verification questions and come up with a “code of practice,” among other activities.
Facebook was rocked in May by anonymous allegations that that editors behind the trending topics section had downplayed stories and news sources popular with conservatives. Facebook ultimately pledged to make changes to how the feature was run even though it said it found no evidence to support the accusations.
It fired the curators of the section in August in what seemed like an attempt at a fresh start.
Then, in two well-publicized incidents, the trending topics feature surfaced a story that said that Fox News’ Kelly had been fired for supporting Clinton and a second one promoting a conspiracy theory about the 9/11 terrorist attacks.
The company has pledged to do better.
“Our goal is to make Trending as useful as possible to the people who use Facebook every day,” said a company spokesperson in a statement. “We are listening to feedback and applying what we learn to improving the product.”
“We’re particularly focused on the speed and accuracy with which we detect hoax and satirical stories,” the spokesperson added.
The storm of fake news stories does not seem poised to trigger the same kind of congressional backlash that came with the bias allegations, even as some Democrats said they thought it raised consumer protection questions.
“Well it could [pose a consumer protection question],” said Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.), a member of the Commerce Committee. “We haven’t had a chance to look at it, but I think we should look at it. I mean, we have enough trouble with the real news at this point. It’s bad enough.”
Others were more cautious in their assessment of the situation.
“I think there are consumer protection issues, but there are also first amendment protections and the two need to be balanced,” said Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.), also a member of the committee.
Many of the key Republicans who were concerned about the reports of bias among the trending topics editors say they think the company can handle the fake news issue on their own.
“This is all new territory, I think for all consumers of information,” said Rep. Greg Walden (Ore.), who chairs the tech subcommittee of the House Energy and Commerce Committee. “And I think ultimately the consumer will rule on this, and they don’t want fake news stories.
“I would prefer to have them solve it, and I think they have the capability to do that, and I think they’re responsible actors and will do the right thing.”
Senate Commerce Committee Chairman John Thune (R-S.D.), who led the charge against the company when the bias accusations took center stage, said that he believed Facebook was trying to make the trending topics section “an objective platform” and that the issues with fake news stories were growing pains.
“I think any time you’ve got information out there that’s not accurate, that’s problematic,” he said last week. “I think it’s a work in progress, it seems like to me.”
Rep. Anna Eshoo (Calif.), the top Democrat on the House Energy and Commerce Committee’s tech subcommittee, represents part of the community where Facebook is headquartered. She said it wasn’t her job to get involved in discussions over the code at the core of the company’s products.
“I’m not going to get into what the algorithms are telling or saying anywhere,” she said. “I don’t really think that’s my role as a member of Congress.”
That does not mean, however, that lawmakers are immune from the effects of fake news stories that produce political outrage in those who read them.