Facebook may have finally found a way to deal with fake news

At long last, the company released its guidelines on content moderation.

Is Facebook finally starting to change for the better? CREDIT: GETTY / TOM WILLIAMS
Is Facebook finally starting to change for the better? CREDIT: GETTY / TOM WILLIAMS

It’s tough to exaggerate just how difficult the past six months — or the past two years, really — have been for Facebook. Accusations of privacy violations and tone-deaf responses. Revelations about Russian meddling and plagues of fake news. Hearings on Capitol Hill, with Mark Zuckerberg finally forced to appear before frustrated senators.

The past few days, however, have at least seen a couple pieces of good news for the beleaguered company. Facebook’s issues aren’t yet behind it — neither in the United States nor internationally — but, at least for Zuckerberg, there are a few bright spots to cling to.

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First, a study from NewsWhip released on Tuesday found that Facebook’s attempts to stem the flood of fake news on the site may be seeing some early returns. As NewsWhip found, “Facebook’s efforts to deprioritize misleading content and clickbait publishers seems to have had some effect.”

The study focused on a handful of notorious fake news sites, like YourNewsWire — a site that’s grown so notorious for publishing conspiracies and lies that it’s become, as the Hollywood Reporter wrote, “Breitbart for Liberals.” One of the site’s fake posts, claiming that an unnamed “CDC doctor” encouraged people not to get the flu vaccine, managed to become one of Facebook’s most-engaged posts earlier this year. Other popular posts from YourNewsWire claim that George Soros paid off March for our Lives protesters, while another claimed that London had shuttered hundreds of churches while simultaneously opening hundreds of mosques.

While YourNewsWire still pulls in millions of engagements per month, the page’s engagements — alongside the engagements for its sister site, The People’s Voice — appear to have seen a steep drop-off the past few months. Where YourNewsWire saw about 250 engagements per post in August, the site now averages fewer than 100. The drop-off for The People’s Voice has been even more precipitous: Where the site saw some 650 engagements per post in October, it’s now at approximately 200.

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The same went for Conservative Daily Post and The Anonymous Conservative, two other sites studied by NewsWhip, which are each averaging fewer than 100 engagements per post. According to NewsWhip, Conservative Daily Post had seen a “severe decline in engagements.”

Of course, that doesn’t mean fake news has been entirely eliminated from the social media platform. Just this month, Facebook announced that it had shut down hundreds of fake Russian Facebook accounts and pages, while any number of fake Russian posts continue to percolate on other pages. (Facebook still has not released a comprehensive list of all of the fake Russian accounts and pages it has removed.)

But as NewsWhip notes, early indications suggest Facebook’s efforts to eliminate fake news from newsfeeds “perhaps … did indeed impact the spread” of such posts.

Meanwhile, after much hand-wringing and criticism, Facebook finally decided to release its internal guidelines on content moderation this week.

The lengthy guidelines detail a number of topics, ranging from what constitutes “hate speech” to a new appeals process for users who’ve seen their content removed. Said Zuckerberg, “These standards are a work in progress, and sharing them openly will help us get feedback from you to make them better.”

The changes aren’t yet enough to make up for months of stumbles and missteps for the company. But they’re a long-overdue start — and hopefully indicative of more changes to come — for a company that often seems to take two steps forward, followed by two steps back.