A dangerous piece of fake news is spreading like wildfire on Facebook

Despite new efforts, Facebook still can't figure out how to slow the spread of fake news.

Meet the new fake news, same as the old fake news (CREDIT: GETTY/DANIEL LEAL-OLIVAS)
Meet the new fake news, same as the old fake news (CREDIT: GETTY/DANIEL LEAL-OLIVAS)

Two weeks ago, Facebook announced that it would be reformatting its maligned News Feed, looking for the latest means of steering away from the fake news controversies that have dogged the company over the past year. Hoping to undercut the fake news publishers pumping falsehoods and conspiracy to users, Facebook announced it would now be prioritizing “more posts from friends and family” and “less public content, including videos and other posts from publishers or businesses.”

In theory, the move should help gut outlets known for outright fabrication – the types of fake news outlets that consistently pushed pro-Trump material through the election.

But in practice, at least thus far, it appears the move has fallen woefully short of its goal.

A study from NewsWhip found earlier this week that one of the top four stories with the most engagement since Facebook’s change belonged to YourNewsWire, a notorious fake news factory. The story, which claimed that an unnamed “CDC doctor” said the flu vaccine was “causing [the] deadly flu outbreak,” had at the time generated more overall engagements than any story from outlets like The New York Times, Wall Street Journal, ABC, CBS, CNN, NPR, or even Fox News. (The YourNewsWire story has since fallen a few slots.) At last check, the YourNewsWire story had nearly a half-million total Facebook engagements. 

The YourNewsWire story itself isn’t just fraudulent – it’s also dangerous. While the flu season this year has been rough, a flu vaccination remains, as the CDC has made clear, the most important step in keeping yourself safe from the flu. But that reality, for YourNewsWire, apparently doesn’t matter, as the site has also pushed stories claiming the White House is now banned from the vaccine – and that the president is moving to bar mandatory vaccines outright.

As NewsWhip wrote, “It is mildly alarming that several of the top stories … came from YourNewsWire, a notorious fake news site.” Indeed, YourNewsWire has generated a fair bit of media coverage over its product. Not only did one of its writers steal the identity of a Latvian computer programmer, but Hollywood Reporter called the site “Breitbart for liberals” – which might actually be a slight against Breitbart, given that YourNewsWire is almost entirely falsehood, hearsay, and conspiracy on everything from alien encounters to impending martial law. As one of the site’s founders told Hollywood Reporter, “Reality is how you perceive it.”

Not only was YourNewsWire banned from Google’s advertising platforms in 2017, but the site itself points to Russian propaganda outlets, including RT, as both a model and a source. Researchers in the European Union identified the site as a “proxy” for Russian disinformation.

While YourNewsWire denies any official affiliation with outlets like RT or Sputnik, this reality – that YourNewsWire, as with many other fake news sites, mirrors and pushes conspiracy theories first originating on Russian propaganda sites – points to another massive hole within Facebook’s algorithm shift. Alongside the re-prioritization of posts from friends and family, Facebook recently announced a user survey to gauge “trustworthiness” of assorted outlets.

Again, the notion of assessing “trustworthiness” among publishers is, in theory, a welcome move. But once more, in practice, the attempt has been slammed as something between ham-handed and naively dangerous.

The survey Facebook has sent to select users includes a total of two questions, asking users whether they recognize the website in question, and how much they “trust” each of the domains. As a trio of researchers wrote in BuzzFeed, there’s every reason to expect that the shape of the survey will allow propaganda and fake news sites to effectively game the responses:

Would you rate the credibility of RT.com for Facebook? Unless you’re a news junkie, you probably haven’t heard of RT, the Russian propaganda site that posted multiple pro-Trump and anti-Clinton “news” stories in 2016. So, you wouldn’t rate it. But avid fans of RT will rate it enthusiastically, which means it will likely get high ratings, as will many arcane alt-right or alt-left sites known only to users who voraciously consume their fringe content.

The good news, if there is any, is that Facebook is at least aware of how badly fake news has decimated the company’s brand over the past year, and how much closer government regulation appears than before. But as 2018 dawns, it’s clear that Facebook’s latest remedy is anything but – and that the swirl fake news, predominantly consumed by Trump supporters, is far from over.