Facebook to offer tips to filter fake news


OTTAWA – Facebook is taking what it calls a “first step” toward helping Canadians tell the difference between fake news and the real thing online.

As of Friday, the social media giant will post a banner on the top of news feeds in Canada and 14 other countries that directs subscribers to a tip sheet that it hopes will educate users on how they can decipher what is, or isn’t, false or misleading information.

“It’s the first time we’re doing something of this magnitude,” said Kevin Chan, head of public policy at Facebook.

The banner, to be posted “for a few days,” is effectively a public service announcement to the media company’s 22 million Canadian subscribers that encourages them to click a link to a 10-point “tip sheet” on how to spot scam information.

The top suggestion: “Be skeptical of headlines.” Facebook points out that false news stories often carry catchy headlines, sometimes in all caps.

“If shocking claims in the headline sound unbelievable, they probably are,” reads the tip sheet, a copy of which was provided to The Canadian Press.

The project is the result of a collaboration with media literacy agency MediaSmarts to help Canadians filter their news feeds for fake content, a phenomenon that became a growing concern during and after the 2016 U.S. presidential election campaign.

But don’t expect to see direct warnings attached to potentially dubious Canadian news stories any time soon, like some European and American subscribers get.

Facebook says it’s still too soon to attach warning labels on so-called “disputed” news stories, like those already being offered to users in the United States, France and the Netherlands.

Facebook users in those countries can flag news stories for false or misleading content by clicking on a grey downward arrow button on the right side of an article.

“We have very much approached this as ‘tests’,” said Chan.

“Being able to label (content) is something that one has to be careful about,” he added.

“You don’t want to mistakenly label things that may actually be legitimate opinion or satire.”

While the so-called fake news phenomenon has manifested itself widely in the United States and parts of Europe — particularly around election campaigns — “in Canada it has not played out in the same way,” Chan said.

And that has allowed Facebook time to think more carefully about how it can tackle the issue in Canada, he said.

The tips being offered to Canadian Facebook users were inspired by a recent research project carried out by MediaSmarts, in which young people were asked what kind of strategies they use to authenticate information they find online.

“We found that (young people) were quite likely to try and figure out whether something was legitimate or not when they were doing school work,” said Matthew Johnson, the director of education at MediaSmarts, a not-for-profit with a self-prescribed mandate of educating young people about digital media.

“But actually they were least likely to do it when they encountered information through social media.”

Johnson said recent research and some focus groups have suggested that’s true of adults as well and points to a need for Canadians to be skeptical of what they read online and to double-check information before sharing it widely with others.

In the U.S., Facebook uses Snopes and PolitiFact, fact-checking organizations that are part of the Poynter International Fact-Checking Network, to help viewers sift through news stories.

It started flagging content after some critics questioned whether the spread of false articles, disguised as legitimate news content, may have influenced the outcome of the U.S. election — a charge that Facebook co-founder Mark Zuckerberg has dismissed.

The Silicon Valley-based tech firm also announced this week it would take part in a multimillion-dollar consortium of universities, other tech companies and foundations largely centred in the United States that hopes to teach people how better to spot fake news articles.

The Facebook-MediaSmarts partnership comes as social media services face increased pressure to govern content that’s shared online.

In Germany, the Merkel government has backed legislation that threatens hefty fines if social networks fail to remove illegal content or don’t give users an option to complain about hate speech.

The bill would also force online companies to purge content flagged as child pornography or inciting terrorism.

Facebook has expressed concern that the proposed law would force private companies to decide which content is illegal, instead of the courts.

Google last year incorporated a “fact-check” tag into some news pages published south of the border to help readers of more prominent stories find fact-checked content and said it was actively working to bring the feature to Canada “in the near future.”

In January, Facebook also launched what it called its Journalism Project, which proposed better collaboration with media organizations on the creation of new storytelling products, training and tools for journalists, and to promote news literacy and curb the spread of what it calls “news hoaxes.”