Facebook, fake news, and free speech

The issue of fake news on social media has suddenly become a hot button issue, and Facebook has found itself square in the cross-hairs of public ire. The issue recently came to a head after an armed man invaded a local pizza parlor because a “news” article he read online said that Hillary Clinton has a secret child slavery ring based there.

At first glance, any rational person would hear or read something like that and say, “Sure, whatever. That’s the dumbest thing I’ve ever heard. How could anyone fall for something like that?”

Well, there are several reason why someone would believe something that outlandish. First and foremost, there are a lot of people out there who simply aren’t rational. Second, there is now a whole industry of trolls out there dedicated to creating fake news, and they’ve gotten quite good at it, to the point where fake news, by all outward appearances, resembles actual news. And finally, there is such a huge distrust of mainstream media, that increasingly people are turning to alternative and, shall we say, less vetted news sources.

All of this is creating a perfect storm wherein people are reading things on the internet that simply aren’t true, but are nonetheless being presented as fact. After public outcry, Facebook is taking some steps to trying and help crack down on fake news. In short, the plan is to create a feature whereby people can flag an article as “disputed.” People can still read the article, but they’ll be able to see a message saying the there are others who dispute the “facts” in it.

Cue people crying foul.

Immediately there was a backlash that Facebook was trying to “control” the news. The new measures, although sent to third-party fact checkers once flagged, are user generated. And they still don’t prevent you from viewing a disputed article. In reality, Facebook isn’t taking any false content off their site; they’re simply giving people a warning that what they’re about to read might not be entirely factual.

Despite this, there are still cries that this violates freedom of speech. Like this article, which warns that such measures limit the public from hearing “different points of view.”

Frankly, such arguments are bullshit, because anything that isn’t a fact really isn’t “a different point of view.” That’s a false equivalency. Saying that the earth is flat and gravity isn’t real isn’t “an alternate point of view”–it’s just plain wrong and not rooted in fact or reality.

Now, that isn’t to say that people shouldn’t be allowed to believe whatever they want. If you want to believe that the earth is flat or hollow or that vaccines cause autism or that lizard people run the government, fine. I can’t stop you. But there’s a difference between voicing your opinion and trying to represent your opinion as fact. One is clearly protected by freedom of speech while the other is not. Freedom of speech gives you license to say and believe whatever crazy thing you want without fear of imprisonment, but it doesn’t give you the right to proclaim it as fact.

An example. Person A posts something on their own Facebook feed that says, “I don’t believe vaccines work. I think that they cause autism, and I think parents shouldn’t vaccinate their children.” This is clearly someone’s personal opinion. Then there’s person B who creates a Facebook group with a title like, “Vaccine Research Group” and creates an article called “Vaccinating your children gives them autism,” which is filled with personal opinion organized in a journalistic format, but contains no factual information or citations.

There is a clear difference between what person A has done and what person B has done. Person A has expressed his or her own thoughts on a public forum. That, to me, is clearly protected by freedom of speech. Person B, however, has dressed their opinion up as journalism and represented it as fact. The latter is much more likely to influence someone to not vaccinate their children because they view it as a credible source–it’s news. This could lead to very real, physical harm in children. Which is what the difference is. Deliberately misleading people in a way that causes them harm goes beyond freedom of speech. 

There’s a clear difference between being able to freely voice your opinions–which everyone has the right to do–and trying to represent your opinion as fact. The former is a critical part of a free society, while the latter is incredibly dangerous to society as a whole. The latter can get you in a whole heap of trouble, as Andrew Wakefield found out if we’re sticking with the vaccine example. He falsified research. That isn’t protected as ‘free speech.’ That’s fraud. And that’s what fake news is essentially–fraud.

As far as I’m concerned, the steps that Facebook is taking don’t go nearly far enough. I’d like to see Facebook create an algorithm that scans an article and looks at 1) how many citations there are, and 2) where those citations are from. Fake news has the potential to lead to great harm: further denial of climate change, dropping vaccination rates, increased use of “alternative” medicine that doesn’t work. And, as we’ve seen already, armed people invading pizza parlors. It’ll lead to further polarized politics, less discourse, and a greater misunderstanding of political and governmental processes.

In short, fake news is bad news for us all.



6 thoughts on “Facebook, fake news, and free speech

  1. “But there’s a difference between voicing your opinion and trying to represent your opinion as fact.”
    ~ Ryan, it’s tragic that we have to make this distinction clear. I question the level of education our children and young adults receive today.

  2. Good discussion here Ryan. A couple of things came to mind. Your statement “some people aren’t rational” isn’t quite true. Technically all people are rational. Michael Shermer makes a convincing argument in his book the believing brain, that we tend to believe first and then rationalize those beliefs. Which is probably why people who believe that beliefs can change probably are much better off. lol But cognitively are rational function is there to support what we already think. This is why the scientific method is so important, because it offers us a tool that escapes the trappings of our brain. Not that scientists of course can’t be biased, but if they stick to the method rigorously chances are they are getting result that is meaningful.

    I think an algorithm checking the veracity of articles would be very difficult. How do you check a well researched political article which has let’s say interviewed people involved in the story, got both sides of an argument and presented the relevant facts? There would be no citations. And news articles, even about something like climate change, often don’t have citations whether even when they support scientific consensus. To use your vaccine example, what if someone writes an article with citations that includes the retracted paper about linking vaccines with autism? Now the algorithm would have to check if the paper was retracted. I’ve seen fake articles that cite other articles, but those articles have nothing to do with the topic, or they are from crap journals. For instance somebody just the other day mystifyingly tried to convince me that smoking was good for your health by posting what seemed like a legit article with lots of references. I don’t know enough about the science to refute point for point and it was in a journal called the Journal of Theoretics. Sounds legit. Of course when I looked up the journal, I found that the journal was owned by the guy who wrote the article! LOL I can see it wouldn’t be hard for that guy to publish his paper, and pass peer review! LOL

    I don’t think Facebook’s solution is going to mean much either. I mean some Trump supporter who reads an article about climate change not being real, will just see a bunch of “refutes” and they’ll think well of course those brainwashed liberals think the opposite. In fact a lot of “refutes” might actually convince a more conspiracy theory minded person that the article is even more legit. And there are plenty of articles that liberals wouldn’t even bother to read to mark it as fake, if Facebook’s plan is to try to reduce the chances of it appearing in your newsfeed if there have been lots of “refutes”. So many articles will still get through and passed around.

    I think in the end it is ultimately answered by education, by teaching people how to research properly. What I thought might be best in the end is to have some sort of rubric that rates news sites for accuracy and journalistic integrity, that is used by several watchdog sites out there and have that along side the article. If it’s some new site trying to get ahead of the curve and post crap articles, well then at least no rating appears, which lets somebody know that the site has no rating and by that alone it should be deemed untrustworthy. And even that won’t be the entire solution until people themselves wise up, and who knows if that’s ever going to happen. 😦

    1. Good points. I had considered that it would probably be easy for someone to just link to random articles for the sake of fooling an algorithm. It might catch some of the lazier trolls, but not the dedicated or professional trolls.

      Excellent point about refutes only making a conspiracy stronger. It does seem like the more facts you throw at people, the more likely you are to feed into that paranoia.

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