Weaponizing Facebook

FB with gun

Want to shut down a news site? Facebook will help. A new Facebook “hoax button” lets anyone flag any news article posted on Facebook as false. The mechanism is the same as flagging a post as “annoying or distasteful” or pornography. Just click, and you’re done.

The devil is in the details. Unlike legitimate fact-checking operations, Facebook does nothing to investigate or evaluate. If a post gets enough flags, Facebook will post a warning that it may be false. If a news organization gets enough hoax button flags, Facebook will show its content less often. The only evidence considered is the number of people who click the hoax button.

Could some group use this to discredit political views they don’t like? Absolutely. As Robinson Meyer writes in The Atlantic, “After Gamergate, it’s easy to see concerted campaigns forming around marking announcements from victims as hoaxes.” If the algorithm counts only the number of flags, without actual investigation, any organized group can use the system as a way to attack people and articles that they dislike.

An article in the New Media & Society journal (unfortunately, behind a paywall) describes a 2012 attack on pro-gay groups on Facebook, coordinated by a conservative group called “Truth4Time.” The authors also cite “a group of bloggers angered by the presence of pro-Muslim content on YouTube [that] began an effort called “Operation Smackdown,” coordinating daily attacks on specific videos.

The drawback identified by the article is clear:

“[W]ithout any public record or space for contestation, they leave us little chance to defend the right for those things to be said, or to rally against something so egregious that it warrants more than a quiet deletion.”

Actual fact checking takes time, effort and resources. Nieman Lab reported on January 20 that the number of real fact-checking sites is increasing. The Reporters’ Lab has a map of the sites, with links.

Plenty of rubbish passes for news on Facebook. I’m definitely going to use the new flag to mark what I see, even while recognizing the dangers and acknowledging that, as Meyer wrote, flags provide only “technical solutions to social problems.”

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