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Facebook’s Stepping Up Efforts to Stamp Out Fake News Ahead of UK Election

Facebook is putting increasing focus on stamping out fake news and mis-use of their platform for public manipulation, with The Social Network culling thousands of fake profiles ahead of the UK election next month, while also taking out newspaper ads to highlight questionable posts to users.

The BBC's reported that Facebook has removed ‘tens of thousands’ of fake accounts in recent months, the result of their improved detection efforts aimed at quashing the fake news epidemic.

As per Facebook:

“We’ve made improvements to recognize inauthentic accounts more easily by identifying patterns of activity - without assessing the content itself. For example, our systems may detect repeated posting of the same content, or an increase in messages sent. With these changes, we expect we will also reduce the spread of material generated through inauthentic activity, including spam, misinformation, or other deceptive content that is often shared by creators of fake accounts.”

This comes on the back of a recent report from Facebook which highlighted some of the more complex ways in which government-backed groups have been using The Social Network to manipulate public opinion, including:

  • The creation of false accounts pretending to be people you know in order to facilitate the spread of information through more networks
  • Co-ordinated Liking of certain posts to boost specific messages
  • The creation of Groups which spread veiled propaganda masked as genuine information

After originally playing down the impact of fake news and false information, Facebook’s been forced to act – and the expansion of their efforts into newspaper ads further highlights how significant the issue is now considered by Zuckerberg and Co.

The newspaper ad (below) has appeared in several of the UK’s major newspapers, including The Times, The Guardian and Daily Telegraph, and highlights some key elements users need to watch for when assessing a news story.

This also works in line with their recent introduction of new measures to help users verify the information of news stories by showing related news reports, and flagging stories which have been disputed by fact-checking organizations.

The expansion of Facebook’s crackdown on false news is significant for various reasons.

For one, Facebook's reach is extremely powerful, and various reports have already shown that the platform can be used to alter people’s opinions based on emotional triggers. That being the case, the potential for misuse is a major concern – for example, if a political party could identify specific users who were more susceptible to a certain type of messaging, they could target them with ads that play to their fears.

This, essentially, is how political marketing firm Cambridge Analytica has reportedly been able to help various political movements – including the Trump campaign and Brexit – gain significant momentum, as explained in this report by The Guardian.

“Finding “persuadable” voters is key for any campaign and with its treasure trove of data, Cambridge Analytica could target people high in neuroticism, for example, with images of immigrants “swamping” the country. The key is finding emotional triggers for each individual voter.”

Cambridge Analytica has been able to build complex audience profiles largely based on Facebook data (a claim CA denies), enabling hyper-targeting of such campaigns. Combine this capacity with fake news, flooding social networks that confirm people’s pre-established beliefs, and you get a dangerous mix which strikes to the very heart of democratic process. Not something to be taken in any way lightly.

In a more immediate, and applicable sense for Page managers, the crackdown on fake profiles could also have an impact on your Page follower counts. Many fake profiles will follow real accounts to make them appear more legit - The Guardian itself, for example, says they’ve seen a drop of around 20,000 Likes linked to fake accounts (mostly ahead of the French election) across Guardian-branded pages in recent months.

That, in turn, could have expanded impacts for reach, as these removals are counted as ‘unlikes’, which are seen as a negative in Facebook’s algorithm.

You’d hope Facebook would identify this behavior and lessen the subsequent impact of account removals as a factor, but it’s worth keeping an eye on your Page stats for any similar fluctuations or shifts. Having these fake accounts gone is a good thing, long-term, but it may also leave some residual impacts on your Facebook performance.

As Facebook continues to grow, so too does its potential influence – which inevitably means political groups will also be looking for ways to use the power of the platform to broaden the reach of their message.

Given this, Facebook’s continued efforts to reduce the spread of fake news are hugely important. Some have expressed skepticism with Facebook's efforts on this front, noting that Zuckerberg and Co are currently under pressure on several fronts over data use (including a recent Austrian court case that went against them), and their anti-fake news push is more bark than bite. There are further considerations and questions to be asked about our increasingly data-driven messaging, for sure, but any effort in removing fake reports or raising audience awareness is a positive, and may play a part in holding an increasingly fractured media landscape together. 

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