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#PRFAIL: Facebook’s Now Reliable: Fake News?

#PRFAIL: Facebook’s Now Reliable: Fake News?

We’re kicking off the year in #PRFAIL with a familiar culprit: Facebook. And this chapter is particularly egregious because it speaks directly to crisis PR!

One of the most disgraceful revelations about the social networking site in the past couple years has been its unchecked publication of thousands of divisive Russian-backed political ads and fake headlines. Whether it was the Russians, left-leaning or right-leaning—the harmful content reached millions on both sides—and brought Facebook into serious hot water with the U.S. government. Avoiding regulation or other severe penalties has meant that the tech conglomerate has had to clean up its act (once again)—or at least appear to. And that’s exactly what it did with an initiative to sic third-party fact-checkers on all the fake Facebook news currently in circulation.

After about a year, however, this effort has backfired because professionals who claim to be “in the know” are asserting that Facebook isn’t in earnest. These people are journalists, who don’t believe (or aren’t being shown) that their fact-checking efforts are having any effect on Facebook’s watershed of fake news at all. Facebook has refused to release meaningful data on the issue.1

These “partnerships” have also raised conflict of interest concerns between the news organizations—who are of course obligated to report truthfully on Facebook and the company.2

Brooke Binkowski, former managing editor of Snopes, a fact-checking organization which has partnered with Facebook for two years, said, “[Facebook has] essentially used us for crisis PR.”3 Another factchecker also stated that Facebook wanted “the appearance of trying to prevent damage without actually doing anything.”4

And in fact, the system Facebook has employed—tagging debunked items with a “disputed” label—has often had an opposite effect, where subscribers have made even more of an effort to share and disseminate.5

Facebook has claimed that these “disputed” tags—few though they have been so far—reduce future impressions of the content by 80%, but this has not been verified.6 And Angie Drobnic Holan, editor of Facebook factchecking partner PolitiFact, has said that she “can’t tell” whether Facebook’s mushrooming fake content has been reduced (“Can Facebook tell?” she added. “You would assume they could. I don’t have any way of knowing.”).7

Either way, many of the journalists agree that this factchecking mission appears to be a token gesture. “The relationship [Facebook has] with fact-checking organizations is way too little and way too late. They should really be handling this internally. They should be hiring armies of moderators and their own fact-checkers,” one of them said.8

The basic PR law violated here is “don’t lie.” But what if you aren’t lying, per se—but you are allowing others to do it through your medium? Does that make you a liar too? Public opinion says “yes.” Common sense says “yes.” Moral codes say “yes.” When you lie in PR—and let’s face it, Facebook is ALL PR—it wreaks havoc and always comes back to bite you. Lying on large communication channels—whoa, the blowback is BIG!

What should a company in as much trouble as Facebook do if they were serious about gaining their reputation back? Take ownership, solve the problem and BE TRANSPARENT. After you get into hot water, you can’t slap lipstick on a pig and expect it to pass public opinion. Hiring a few contractors as fake news moderators is not going to stem the tide (and it also creates issues for the media organizations themselves). Facebook, time to introduce some good actors into the mix. We’re waiting.

  1. Levin, Sam. “’They Don’t Care’: Facebook Factchecking in Disarray as Journalists Push to Cut Ties.” The Guardian, Guardian News and Media, 13 Dec. 2018, theguardian.com/technology/2018/dec/13/they-dont-care-facebook-fact-checking-in-disarray-as-journalists-push-to-cut-ties.
  2. Levin, Sam. “’Way Too Little, Way Too Late’: Facebook’s Factcheckers Say Effort Is Failing.” The Guardian, Guardian News and Media, 13 Nov. 2017, theguardian.com/technology/2017/nov/13/way-too-little-way-too-late-facebooks-fact-checkers-say-effort-is-failing.
  3. Levin, Sam. “’They Don’t Care’: Facebook Factchecking in Disarray as Journalists Push to Cut Ties.” The Guardian, Guardian News and Media, 13 Dec. 2018, com/technology/2018/dec/13/they-dont-care-facebook-fact-checking-in-disarray-as-journalists-push-to-cut-ties.
  4. Ibid.
  5. Sullivan, Mark. “Report: Fact-Checkers Say Facebook Has Used Them for ‘Crisis PR.’” Fast Company, Fast Company, 13 Dec. 2018, fastcompany.com/90281553/report-fact-checkers-say-facebook-has-used-them-for-crisis-pr.
  6. Ibid.
  7. Levin, Sam. “’They Don’t Care’: Facebook Factchecking in Disarray as Journalists Push to Cut Ties.” The Guardian, Guardian News and Media, 13 Dec. 2018, wtheguardian.com/technology/2018/dec/13/they-dont-care-facebook-fact-checking-in-disarray-as-journalists-push-to-cut-ties.
  8. Levin, Sam. “’Way Too Little, Way Too Late’: Facebook’s Factcheckers Say Effort Is Failing.” The Guardian, Guardian News and Media, 13 Nov. 2017, theguardian.com/technology/2017/nov/13/way-too-little-way-too-late-facebooks-fact-checkers-say-effort-is-failing.

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