Fact-checking initiative and bogus account deletions among moves, but scepticism remains over whether firm is doing enough.
Facebook has announced moves to help suppress fake news during the UK general election, starting with the deletion of tens of thousands of bogus profiles.
The US social media company, which has more than 31 million accounts registered in Britain, is also launching a fact-checking initiative and said it will stop promoting posts that show signs of being implausible. From Monday it is also running newspaper adverts that give 10 tips on spotting fake news.
They advise that “if shocking claims in the headline sound unbelievable they probably are”, to “check the author’s sources to confirm they are accurate” and “only share news that you know to be credible”.
The moves follow growing pressure on Facebook over fake news. Until now the company has appeared resistant, with chief executive Sheryl Sandberg recently arguing that it could not be “an arbiter of truth”.
The company has repeatedly stressed it is a platform rather than a publisher and therefore has different obligations towards veracity of content than media outlets. It was strongly criticised during the US election when false stories spread on social media including that the pope had endorsed Donald Trump, but such egregious examples have yet to surface in the UK general election.
Facebook has now said it has changed its systems to “reduce the spread of … misinformation” by fake accounts it claims it can now recognise more easily by detecting repeated posting of the same content, or an increase in messages sent from that account.
“With these changes, we expect we will also reduce the spread of material generated through inauthentic activity, including spam, misinformation, or other deceptive content that is often shared by creators of fake accounts,” a spokesperson said.
The company also announced it was supporting Full Fact, a UK fact checking charity, “to work with major newsrooms to address rumours and misinformation spreading online during the UK general election”.
Full Fact has so far raised £28,000 in a crowdfunding exercise to fact check the UK election campaign. It is unclear how big the financial contribution will be from Facebook and Google, which is also providing backing. The charity already checks major claims by political parties, newspapers and political manifestos and is now expected to extend further into social media. Its staff of 11 will double for the election campaign with researchers from the House of Commons library and the Office of National Statistics joining on secondment.
“At election time our work is more needed than ever before,” said Will Moy, director of Full Fact. He declined to comment further, saying details of the arrangements with Google and Facebook have yet to be settled.
Facebook also said it would put unshared articles lower in UK rankings on the basis that, “if reading an article makes people significantly less likely to share it, that may be a sign that a story has misled people in some way”.
A spokesperson added: “In December, we started to test incorporating this signal into ranking, specifically for articles that are outliers, where people who read the article are significantly less likely to share it. We’re now expanding the test to the UK.”
The moves were greeted with scepticism by Hetan Shah, chief executive of the Royal Statistical Society, which is calling for social media platforms to accept they have an implicit editorial function.
“You would expect them to be closing down bots as part of their regular function and they have been talking about third party fact-checking for months,” he said. “I am surprised they are saying the things they will suppress are the things that are not shared. The problem has been the ones that are shared. They are slowly waking up to the fact they do have some sort of editorial function.”