Facebook makes biggest move yet in battle against "fake news," but is it too late?

The social-media giant sent out a warning to companies and media sites that use Pages and traffic in fake news

Published August 28, 2017 2:12PM (EDT)

 (Getty/Sean Gallup)
(Getty/Sean Gallup)

In a blog post published on the company's official website today, Facebook representatives said that the social-media platform would block advertising from company or media property that posted what third-party experts determined "fake" news on their official Pages.

Facebook product managers Tessa Lyons and Satwik Shukla wrote, "If Pages repeatedly share stories marked as false, these repeat offenders will no longer be allowed to advertise on Facebook."

The post continued:

This update will help to reduce the distribution of false news which will keep Pages that spread false news from making money. We’ve found instances of Pages using Facebook ads to build their audiences in order to distribute false news more broadly. Now, if a Page repeatedly shares stories that have been marked as false by third-party fact-checkers, they will no longer be able to buy ads on Facebook. If Pages stop sharing false news, they may be eligible to start running ads again.

Shukla and Lyons added, "False news is harmful to our community. It makes the world less informed and erodes trust . . . Today’s update helps to disrupt the economic incentives and curb the spread of false news, which is another step towards building a more informed community on Facebook."

While welcome, the move seems long overdue from the company that has pledged to combat both false news of this kind over recent months and years. As observers have noted, many information portals representing both the right and left ends of the political spectrum have already attained certain levels of success — both in terms of finance, political influence and notoriety — based on exactly the strategies the company is now attempting to block.

These strategies were no more evident than in the long buildup to the 2016 election. While websites supporting the candidacy Donald J. Trump (some of them of Russian origin) flogged false facts to forward and increase his popularity, other properties claiming to or actually supporting leftist agendas were also free to distribute misleading or untrue reports about Democratic challenger Hillary Clinton. It is arguable that these gambits from both sides of the divide helped give Trump the edge over the centrist candidate in the November election.

In at least this sense, Facebook's new approach — which is in some part a reaction to the 2016 election — comes too late.

As well, it is unclear what will constitute "fake news" in the eyes of Facebook's third-party fact-checking partners. Do false claims of the medical benefits or dangers of this or that substance or treatment qualify (pseudoscientific wellness sites and sellers are particularly successful on the platform)? Will misleading opinion pieces posted on official Pages constitute a violation? What about conspiracy theories that claim to just be "asking questions" from the many, many properties that follow in the Infowars mold?

Again, many of the properties that traffic in such "false news" angles are already successful and are often run by people smart enough to couch their claims in bet-hedging language that might cushion them against analysis.

Yes, shutting down revenue through blocking Facebook advertising is, in theory, perhaps the most effective and most active way the social-media giant can attack the significant cultural and political problem that the distribution of "fake news" presents for the United States as well as nations across the globe. Yet, whether today's newly announced strategy will be effective remains questionable, particularly when the horse of doubt and falsehoods that Trump rode into the White House in is already well out of the barn.


By Gabriel Bell

MORE FROM Gabriel Bell