Internet titans have recently come under considerable fire from critics who contend they have not done enough to combat the spread of fake news on their platforms. While the dissemination of fake news on the Internet is by no means a new phenomenon, it became especially prevalent throughout the 2016 election cycle, with some observers believing it may have actually influenced the outcome.
The New York Times recently examined a chilling example of the dangerous effects a viral fake news story can produce:
Days before the presidential election, James Alefantis, owner of a local pizza restaurant called Comet Ping Pong, noticed an unusual spike in the number of his Instagram followers.
Within hours, menacing messages like “we’re on to you” began appearing in his Instagram feed. In the ensuing days, hundreds of death threats — one read “I will kill you personally” — started arriving via texts, Facebook and Twitter. All of them alleged something that made Mr. Alefantis’s jaw drop: that Comet Ping Pong was the home base of a child abuse ring led by Hillary Clinton and her campaign chief, John D. Podesta.
When Mr. Alefantis discovered that his employees were getting similar abusive messages, he looked online to unravel the accusations. He found dozens of made-up articles about Mrs. Clinton kidnapping, molesting and trafficking children in the restaurant’s back rooms. The articles appeared on Facebook and on websites such as The New Nationalist and The Vigilant Citizen, with one headline blaring: “Pizzagate: How 4Chan Uncovered the Sick World of Washington’s Occult Elite.”
Unfortunately, the competing factors involved could make this a particularly complex problem to solve. According to a study by the Pew Research Center, 62 percent of U.S. adults get at least some of their news on social media. As even more people come to rely on social media for their primary news experience, the tug of war between accurate information and free speech may become even more pronounced. Earlier this year, Facebook encountered considerable backlash amid allegations that it suppresses conservative news, which ultimately led to a private sit-down at its company headquarters with conservative leaders. In a post addressing these issues, Facebook CEO and Founder Mark Zuckerberg underscored this critical tension:
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 mistakenly restricting accurate content. We do not want to be arbiters of truth ourselves, but instead rely on our community and trusted third parties.
Google recently announced that it will ban websites that peddle fake news from using its online advertising service. Facebook similarly updated its Audience Network policy to specifically include language that it will not display ads in sites that show misleading or fake news content. Seeking to empower users to be more discerning, other online outlets have published information on how individuals can “avoid getting conned by fake news sites.”
What do you think? Should Tech Giants Do More to Reduce Fake News?
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