Facebook spreads fake news 72 hours after sacking human editors

If you’re more than a decade away from retirement, then the metallic footsteps of robots (figuratively) creeping up behind you to take your job is (literally) an occupational hazard. While the time frames for each occupation vary greatly depending on how robot-friendly the career is, selfishly it’s quite reassuring to report that algorithms aren’t ready to take on the job of distributing news just yet.

Unfortunately for Facebook, this is one lesson that the company has had to learn the hard way.

On Friday, the social network pulled humans back from the trending news process in a bid to ensure that any political biases were kept in check, following criticisms earlier this year that these humans were deliberately burying conservative news. It’s not the first time that social networks have been gamed for political ends – see the fascinating case of the Digg patriots – but Facebook’s reach makes it influential in a way that previous sites haven’t been.

Without human intervention to separate the wheat of truth from the chaff of nonsense, it took less than 72 hours for a fake news story to appear in the spotlight, as caught by the Washington Post. The story in story summary described how Megyn Kelly had been fired from Fox News for backing Hillary Clinton in the presidential election. It wasn’t true, based on a misleading headline.facebook_spreads_fake_news_human_editors

In a blog post explaining the shift in its approach to trending news, Facebook explains that humans are still involved in the process “to ensure that the topics that appear in Trending remain high-quality – for example, confirming that a topic is tied to a current news event in the real world”.

Facebook has since removed the post and issued an apology. Speaking to CBS News, Justin Osofsky, vice president of global operations, offered a little more explanation about how it came about. “A topic is eligible for Trending if it meets the criteria for being a real-world news event and there are a sufficient number of relevant articles and posts about that topic. Over the weekend, this topic met those conditions and the Trending review team accepted it thinking it was a real-world topic. We then re-reviewed the topic based on the likelihood that there were inaccuracies in the articles. We determined it was a hoax and it is no longer being shown in Trending. We’re working to make our detection of hoax and satirical stories quicker and more accurate.”

After this slip-up, just three days into the algorithmic news experiment, it’s possible the flesh-and-bone brigade will take a more hands-on role again – at least until the AI gets a better grip on things.

Image: Sarah Marshall, used under Creative Commons

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