No, Bill Gates isn’t giving away $5,000 if you share his Facebook photo.
No, the Talking Angela app isn’t a front for online paedophiles. And no, an entire small town in Texas has not been put into Ebola quarantine.
These are just three examples of hoaxes that have spread widely on Facebook in recent years, as gullible users shared them with friends and family. Sometimes it was pure, mischievous scaremongering, but some Facebook hoaxes were more malign: bait to get people to click through to malware-ridden websites.
Now the social network is cracking down with changes to its news feed that will ensure its users see less hoax and spam posts, while providing a warning of their potential falsity when they are seen.
“We’ve heard from people that they want to see fewer stories that are hoaxes, or misleading news,” explained Facebook software engineer Erich Owens and research scientist Udi Weinsberg in a blog post announcing the changes.
“Today’s update to News Feed reduces the distribution of posts that people have reported as hoaxes and adds an annotation to posts that have received many of these types of reports to warn others on Facebook.”
The new feature is based on another recent addition to Facebook: the ability to report any post as being a “false news story”. Those reports will now be taken into account by Facebook’s news feed algorithm as it determines which posts are displayed on users’ news feeds.
Posts that have received lots of reports will also have a message – “Many people on Facebook have reported that this story contains false information” – added as an annotation when they do appear in people’s feeds.
There may be potential for abuse of this new feature, even though Owens and Weinsberg say that satirical websites – The Onion for example – should not be affected by the changes, as “we’ve found from testing that people tend not to report satirical content intended to be humorous, or content that is clearly labeled as satire”.
However, it remains to be seen how the system will cope with, for example, large numbers of ‘false news story’ reports based on political or religious disagreements.
One thing Facebook is being very clear on is its determination to still be seen as a platform, not a publisher – an important legal point in terms of its responsibility for the material published on the social network.
Doesn’t annotating stories as potentially false while ensuring they are seen by less people fall into the realms of publishing? Not according to Facebook. “We are not removing stories people report as false and we are not reviewing content and making a determination on its accuracy,” claimed the blog post.
This article was written by Stuart Dredge, for theguardian.com on Wednesday 21st January 2015 07.00 Europe/Londonguardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010