An explosion of fake news on Facebook

An explosive new study reveals that political misinformation is running rampant on Facebook as the 2020 election approaches. In the first ten months of 2019, "[p]olitically relevant disinformation was found to have reached over 158 million estimated views, enough to reach every reported registered voter in the US at least once," according to the report. 

The study was conducted by Avaaz, an international non-profit working to "protect democracies from the dangers of disinformation on social media." The group provided an advance copy of the report to Popular Information.

The report looked at "the top 100 fake news stories about US politics still online on the platform." It defined fake news as "examples that had already been fact-checked and debunked by reputable US fact-checking organizations at the time of our study." Not every piece of misinformation is fact-checked, so this is only a portion of the fake news on Facebook. Although the amount of political misinformation on Facebook revealed by the report is startlingly large, Avaaz took a conservative approach that may understate the scope of the problem.

The prevalence of misinformation is accelerating. Avaaz found "86 million estimated views of disinformation in the last 3 months, which is more than 3 times as many as during the preceding 3 months (27 million)." 

Almost all fake news (91%) was negative. The study found that most negative misinformation (62%) was about Democrats or liberals. Positive fake news was much rarer (9%), and 100% was about Republicans or conservatives.  

After the 2016 election, Facebook pledged to take aggressive action to curb political misinformation. The company said it was "committed to doing everything we can to reduce the spread of false news to as close to zero as possible."

But Avaaz concluded that "that Facebook’s measures have largely failed to reduce the spread of viral disinformation on the platform." The problem appears to be getting worse. Avaaz found that "one year before Election Day, the most viral fake news about US politics were able to reach more users than what was reported from three to six months preceding the 2016 elections."

Mega-viral fake news 

Although most fake news targets Democrats, the most widely viewed piece of fake news in the first ten months of 2019 targeted Trump. A story in the "American Herald Tribune" claimed that "Trump's grandfather was a pimp and tax evader" and "his father [was] a member of the KKK." 

Neither claim is supported by convincing evidence. Author Gwenda Blair wrote in her book about the Trump family, Trumps: Three Generations That Built an Empire, that businesses owned by Trump's grandfather "apparently hosted prostitution," but Blair said that she would not "call him a pimp." Trump's father, Fred Trump, "was detained at a KKK protest in the Queens borough of New York City" in 1927 when the Klan brawled with police, but he was "released without charges." There is no evidence Fred Trump was a KKK member. The claim that Trump's grandfather was a tax evader is not attributed to any source. 

But despite being debunked by an official Facebook fact-checking partner, Lead Stories, the false article on Trump's family was viewed more than 29.2 million times on Facebook. 

The second biggest piece of fake news on Facebook this year targeted Nancy Pelosi. An article on Potatriots Unite claimed that Pelosi was diverting billions from Social Security to cover impeachment costs. 

The Potatriots Unite site labeled the piece as satire, but that wouldn't be apparent to Facebook users unless they clicked the link and carefully read the article. That's not how most people use Facebook. 

The article earned a "Pants on Fire" from Politifact "as part of Facebook’s efforts to combat false news and misinformation on its News Feed." That means if you try to share the post, you get the following message. 

But this tactic does not seem to be working. This piece of fake news about Pelosi was viewed more than 24.6 million times on Facebook. 

The third most viral fake story on Facebook in 2019 accused Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) of proposing a nationwide ban on motorcycles. According to an article on the website "Taters Going To Tate," Ocasio-Cortez said the following: “Besides like, what I just said? A lot of these like, motorcycle people, okay, they’re like: ‘Ooh, look at me, I’m all old and fat and tough and I voted for Trump and smell like wet dog.’" 

Buried on the website's "About" page is the following disclaimer: "Everything on this website is fiction." Few of the estimated 12.3 million people who viewed the headline on Facebook would have seen that warning. The article was ruled false by Snopes. But since Snopes is not an official Facebook fact-check partner, no warning appears when you attempt to post the story on Facebook. 

Avaaz's proposal

Avaaz's report doesn't just document the scope of the problem. It also proposes a solution it calls "Correct the Record." Here are the details:

Platforms must themselves work with fact-checkers to “Correct the Record” by distributing independent third party corrections to EVERY SINGLE PERSON who saw the false information in the first place. Newspapers publish corrections on their own pages, television stations on their own airwaves; platforms should do the same on their own channels. No one else can do it. This solution would tackle disinformation while preserving freedom of expression, as Correct the Record only adds factually corrected information, and does not require the platforms to delete any content.

This is an ambitious proposal, but it would only be a partial remedy to the problem. It would be an improvement over the status quo. But a lot of misinformation on Facebook is never fact-checked. Or, it is fact-checked months after publication. 

In the democratic process, time is of the essence. The highest concentration of political misinformation comes out days or hours before the election. There is simply no time to wait for individual fact-checkers to evaluate this content and then communicate the truth back to anyone who might have seen it. 

Misinformation existed before Facebook. You can now reach any type of audience in minutes at a relatively trivial cost. Facebook has weaponized the spread of misinformation in an unprecedented way. 

UPDATE (11/6, 7PM): Facebook sent Popular Information the following statement:

Multiple independent studies have found that we’ve cut the amount of fake news on Facebook by more than half since the 2016 election. That still means plenty of people see fake news, which is why we now have more visible warning labels flagging this type of content, and prominent notifications when someone tries to share it or already has.”

Thanks for reading!