Calling a hoax a hoax
When I was a kid there was a show on TV called ‘Record Breakers,’ in which presenter Roy Castle would introduce people trying to break all sorts of world records. But more than once he warned viewers about a chain letter going around the UK, saying that Record Breakers was trying to create the biggest ever chain of sent letters.
The chain letter was a hoax, and I distinctly remember him tearing up a chain letter on camera as an example of what viewers should do if they received one.
I quite enjoyed Bloomberg’s story
about how Facebook countered information about itself. The idea of automatically spotting 'chain letter’ type hoaxes through text recognition and automatically posting Facebook’s own debunks to affected users’ News Feeds seems so common sense it’s amazing they stopped doing it.
As for whether this approach would work for other forms of misinformation, Facebook’s statement to Bloomberg insisted it would not. On one hand they have a point; conspiracy theories and deliberately-seeded political myths don’t spread via one, easily identifiable string of text, and links to misleading articles may be shared by people who are themselves debunking them.
Facebook has been ramping up partnerships
with external fact-checking organisations around the world, with the aim of sharing alternative information with users when they see 'disputed’ stories on the platform. Given the complexity of misinformation and all the contexts in which it can be shared, this is a sensible way to go about it.
That said, it does feel like Facebook is often a bit too cautious in the way it tiptoes around false stories, for fear of appearing biased. People seem to conflate facts with feelings these days ('if I think it, it must be true — look, this article confirms my prejudices!’). Facebook risks alienating some of its userbase by appearing too preachy if it takes a zero-tolerance approach to misinformation.
But just as mainstream politicians in various parts of the world are tying themselves in knots as they try to 'respect’ an electorate that has fallen for extreme narratives like 'a no-deal Brexit is a good idea,’ sometimes it would be better for everyone if you just flat-out tell people they’re wrong.
If you don’t stop them dead, hoaxes just keep rolling. Maybe sometimes you can never quite kill them. That Record Breakers chain letter even survived into the internet age, with enough prominence to get debunked by Snopes
. But still, Facebook should just call a spade a spade and a hoax a hoax, as clearly and consistently as it can.