Three and a half years after the pope endorsed President Donald Trump (or didn’t), Facebook has put in a lot of work to clean up its News Feed. But has it made a difference?
In October, a bogus news article claimed that House Speaker Nancy Pelosi had diverted $2.4 billion from Social Security to pay for the impeachment of Trump. “ENOUGH!!!!!!! NO ONE IS SUPPOSED TO TOUCH THAT MONEY!!!!” begins one top comment on the story in a Trump-Pence 2020 group. “Treasonous worthless bitch,” reads another. The article was shared on Facebook more than a million times.
The claim is a classic example of the type of fabricated political propaganda, popularly known as “fake news,” that flooded Facebook in the run-up to the 2016 U.S. election, and the company later pledged to address. Facebook has partnered with fact-checkers, added warning labels to debunked stories (then removed them, then added them again), tweaked its algorithm to reduce those stories’ spread, and punished state-sponsored election meddlers. Yet a recent study from the nonprofit Avaaz found that the social network’s misinformation problem might actually be worse in 2020 than it was in 2016 — a startling conclusion that made headlines in a number of outlets, including CNN, Columbia Journalism Review, and Politico.
A closer look at the study suggests that alarming conclusion may be overstated: Facebook has almost certainly made at least some progress in addressing the most blatant forms of fake news. But it also reveals cracks, loopholes, and limitations in Facebook’s systems that bad actors are busily exploiting as we approach a pivotal year in American political history. And it makes clear that Facebook’s fight against misinformation, like its struggle with content moderation, is one that it is unlikely to truly win without fundamental changes to the platform.
In 2016, Facebook did virtually nothing to fight political misinformation, even though its executives had evidence that Russian agents were behind some of it. Shortly after Trump’s victory, CEO Mark Zuckerberg infamously quipped that it would be “crazy” to think fake news had influenced the election. By 2017, Zuckerberg said he regretted that stance, and Facebook was spinning up a slew of…