Facebook has made some pretty conflicting statements around combating fake news. It has said it’s “working to fight the spread of false news”; a grave responsibility “[it takes] seriously“. But at the same time, the social media giant’s managers don’t want to be “arbiters of truth“. Removing fake news during the Australian election, they claimed, “not our role“.
So perhaps it comes as no surprise when fake posts — which first started appearing before the election — reared their ugly heads again, Facebook has once more declined to step in.
The latest saga
Back in April in the lead up to the federal election, a screenshot of a tweet supposedly from Australian Council of Trade Unions (ACTU) secretary Sally McManus appeared claiming both she and the organisation supported “death taxes” — a 40% tax on inheritance.
Soon, dozens of memes, fake media releases and graphics popped up in multiple languages across multiple platforms, also featuring Bill Shorten and Tanya Plibersek.
The fake news was spread by Facebook groups, the general population and actual politicians and journalists — including Sky News presenter Gary Hardgrave (who later apologised) and Coalition MP George Christensen.
Last month the ACTU was alerted that the fake tweet from McManus, along with a fake post purporting to be from Bill Shorten calling for more immigration of people from the Middle East, were posted on a now-defunct Facebook page. The ACTU reported the post and contacted Facebook, demanding the company investigate and remove the fake posts, citing Facebook’s policy on misrepresentation.
But in correspondence seen by Crikey (originally reported by The Guardian), a Facebook client support analyst responded, saying, “we’ve determined that the content you reported … doesn’t violate our Community Guidelines”.
This is despite Facebook’s own fact-checking service finding inheritance tax content was false. “Thousands of posts were subsequently demoted in News Feed resulting in less distribution,” a Facebook company spokesperson said. “Facebook does not believe that it’s an appropriate role for us to be the arbiter of truth over content shared by ordinary Australians or to referee speech from being subject to public debate and scrutiny.”
McManus said the company was putting profits over morals. “What we saw last election was an organised and orchestrated subterranean social media campaign that was given legitimacy by the Liberal Party and big money from Clive Palmer,” she said. “Facebook is a giant corporation that will undermine democracy in Australia and elsewhere unless it takes the issue of deliberate disinformation and impersonation seriously.”
Facebook has repeatedly said it’s trying to combat fake news, with a “remove, reduce and inform” approach: remove accounts which violate community standards, reduce fake news and clickbait, and inform people by giving them more context on posts. Users can report posts they think are fishy.
The platform launched third-party fact-checking in Australia, and have partnered with the Agence France-Presse (AFP) as a second fact-checking partner. Fake news filters are reportedly going to be rolled out in Australia, with an overlay blocking posts deemed fake unless the user wants to see it.
What should it be doing?
Australians are some of the most likely Facebook users to share fake news. Research found 44% of us don’t trust social media precisely because of the spread of misinformation (though it seems Facebook’s public declarations about quelling the tide have worked — there’s been a 33% decrease in the level of distrust since last year). The vast majority of Aussies want Google and Facebook to be held accountable for spreading fake news.
The Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters reported Facebook had been “restricting independent scrutiny of advertising on its platform”, and raised concerns the platform wasn’t meeting its obligations relating to authorisation rules under the Commonwealth Electoral Act. Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC) chairman Rod Sims has said while Facebook has the capacity to deal with fake news, it has instead been “palming off responsibility” to protect its bottom line.
Plans to introduce an Australian code of conduct on fake news have been rejected. The Digital Industry Group Inc, the industry body which represents Google, Facebook and Twitter, argued the ACCC’s proposal would put them at a commercial disadvantage with the burden of trustworthiness on platforms.
For now, Australians will just have to sit tight and start looking at memes with a little more scrutiny. If it seems too sensationalist to be true, it probably is.