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Fighting Fake News With Code

Written by Cory Healy on May 19, 2017

Fake News™ is on the rise globally. Expect to see an increased usage of weaponized viral hoaxes and memes that normally take days, even weeks, to debunk—which will spread out to millions of people before anything can be done about them.

The viral hoax market is populated by spammers from both sides of the political spectrum for financial gain—some polar opposites are even owned by the same company. These spammers make money by building fake news pages—and even entire fake websites—that imitate well-known organizations. Viral clickbait then leads to page visits on sites that are mostly ads for that sweet, sweet ad revenue.

Left-wing and Right-wing operations deploy these strategies. The best way to combat this is to stay informed and skeptical until you can corroborate. Even the brightest people get fooled every now and then. The information war is gearing up, and the best strategy for dealing with such an influx of faux-formation may just be programming.

This is how Facebook is stepping up its fight against viral hoaxes, the majority of which are able to populate the most on its service:

Facebook Fact Checker is a program that collaborates with third-party fact-checking organizations such as Snopes to identify whether something is a true news item or a viral fabrication. Crowdsourced flagging is combined with verifications from independent third-party factcheckers— signatories of Poynter’s International Fact Checking Code of Principles, which makes the story disputed with a prompt notifying that it’s been disputed. In 2017, there are 114 dedicated fact-checking teams spread across 47 countries.

The process starts out from people-to-people interactions (verifying from people to fact checker) and then from there, computer algorithms take it away. With enough data, the process of identifying and labeling fake news can be automated. How long will it take to be fully automated, and what does the world look like with computers determining what is fact or fiction? It remains to be determined, yet several months into Facebook’s fight to combat fake news, there's evidence that more needs to be done.

Unfortunately, The Guardian has found that current approaches to fighting viral hoaxes are “regularly ineffective, and in some cases appear to [have] minimal impact” in the information war. The process for labeling a dubious news source as disputed ultimately takes too long to be effective, and that the viral content will be spread out way too quickly for any claim to work against it. In some instances, attempts to label something as fake news cause people to share the content more—equating the labeling as an attempt at censorship.

In the meantime, here are some tips from Quartz for personally identifying whether something is real or fake news:

1. Use Fact Checkers

2. Vet URLs

3. Follow the links

4. Check date and timestamps

5. Be skeptical of data and charts