Is Snap our savior from fake news? Snap would like us to think so. Here’s Evan Spiegel writing in Axios
about how the company’s decision to curate a small selection of publishers for its Discover feed has inoculated it from Russian bot networks and malicious, profit-driven hoaxes:
Social media fueled “fake news” because content designed to be shared by friends is not necessarily content designed to deliver accurate information. After all, how many times have you shared something you’ve never bothered to read?
Be smart: The Snapchat solution is to rely on algorithms based on your interests — not on the interests of “friends” — and to make sure media companies also profit off the content they produce for our Discover platform. We think this helps guard against fake news and mindless scrambles for friends or unworthy distractions.
The idea is not completely new. The left side of the app has always been for chats with friends, and the right side has always been for brands. But before now, stories — the ephemeral, public photo and video posts that disappear after 24 hours — have been housed in their own tab to the right of the camera screen. The stories tab blended content from friends and brands, to sometimes confusing effect.
On one hand this is a product story. But for our purposes here today, this is mostly a spin story. Snap, reeling from a terrible quarter
and under huge pressure to grow its user base and its revenues, has seen the smart set all but give up on it as an independent company over the past six months. Its secretive nature helped to ensure that the darkest narratives about the company are also the loudest — Snap rarely makes Spiegel available to talk with journalists.
And so for Spiegel to arrive with an op-ed that tells the media exactly what they want to hear — that a return to fair-minded human gatekeepers will solve the country’s misinformation crisis while giving publishers a stable source of profits — strikes me as more than a little self-serving.
On one hand, it’s true that there’s less misinformation on Snapchat. It hand-picks its partners, and has chosen a group of large mainstream publishers that avoid wild conspiracy theories and outright lies. On the other hand, well, have you ever seen
the headlines in Discover? Here’s CNBC
Some sample headlines that were front and center when I opened Snapchat this morning:
“Do Girls Actually Like When You Do THIS?”
“Don’t let your parents see THIS.”
“The Last 5 Things Yara Shahidi ate.”
“This Peruvian Chef will make you thirsty AF”
You can be thirsty AF for an end to fake news and still not quite see your way to how Snapchat will get us there. The company’s primary interest remains in private messaging. And can private messaging spread misinformation? Here’s Foreign Policy
, in a piece I’ve linked before:
A hoax about child-napping con artists led to the beating of two people this spring in Brazil. A rumor about a salt shortage last fall sparked panicked rushes to markets in several Indian states that turned fatal. And fabricated poll reports sowed doubts about the electoral standing of candidates ahead this month’s elections in Kenya, where the result is disputed and dozens have been killed in protests.
When fake news has violent consequences, journalists have a duty to set the record straight as quickly as possible. But the details of these rumors — who was behind them and why — are particularly murky and likely to remain that way. That’s due to one seemingly trivial detail: In all of these cases, the misinformation made its way to readers via the messaging service WhatsApp.
Perhaps Spiegel has a solution to fake news in private messaging as well. But if so, he hasn’t said it.
I don’t begrudge Snap its effort to reset the narrative on friendlier terms. Certainly any efforts to tamp down the spread of hoaxes is to be welcomed. But let’s not pretend that the Discover feed is the front page of the New York Times — or that the good old days of gatekeeping are here again.