Facebook doesn’t just allow purveyors of “fake news” to spread their lies on their platform. It rewards them.
Between August 2020 and January 2021, shady sites known for putting out misinformation received six times the number of likes and other interactions as reputable news organizations. That’s according to researchers at New York University and the Université Grenoble Alpes in France, who will release their peer-reviewed study on the issue later this month.
The authors of the study found that the company’s algorithms boost pages that traffic in misinformation far more than traditional sites like those run by CNN or the World Health Organization. And it doesn’t matter if the lies come from the left or the right, though the scholars noted conservative fake news sites far outnumber those on the left. The end result is the same — a sea of lies washing over anything resembling the truth.
The study adds to “the growing body of evidence that, despite a variety of mitigation efforts, misinformation has found a comfortable home — and an engaged audience — on Facebook,” Rebekah Tromble, director of the Institute for Data, Democracy and Politics at George Washington University, told the Washington Post.
Facebook said it is working with dozens of fact-checking organizations to stem the tide. That’s akin to fighting a house fire with a garden hose. If the company were serious about battling misinformation, it would look to the algorithms that allow it to flourish. But that’s where the money is made, and the company isn’t interested in putting truth before profit.
So it came as no surprise earlier this year when the company cut off access to the data it had been sharing with researchers. The move came as Facebook faced increasing criticism for its role in the spread of misinformation about the 2020 presidential election, the Jan. 6 insurrection and the safety of the COVID-19 vaccines.
President Joe Biden’s assertion that platforms such as Facebook were “killing people” was derided as unhelpful hyperbole. And rightly so. But the overall criticism is spot on, and data provided by the company itself — before it changed course — back that up. A separate study encompassing all 50 states found that people who get their news from Facebook are less likely to be vaccinated than those who rely on Fox News for their COVID-19 information.
That’s a data set that should concern us all.