Publisher’s Perspective

By Tim Douglass, Publisher of the Pope County Tribune

A new study of user behavior on Facebook around the 2020 election should bolster the long-standing arguments that Facebook’s algorithms fuel the spread of misinformation over more trustworthy souces.

While we’ve never thought that Facebook was a reliable way to get accurate news, this new peer-reviewed study by researchers at New York University and the Universite Grenoble Alpes in France found that from August 2020 to January 2021, news publishers known for putting out misinformation got six times the amount of likes and shares and interactions on the platform than did trustworthy news sources,” according to a report in the Washington Post.

“Ever since “fake news” on Facebook became a public concern following the 2016 presidential election, publishers who traffic in misinformation have been repeatedly shown to be able to gain major audiences on Facebook,” it was stated.  But the NYU study is one of the few comprehensive attempts to measure and isolate the misinformation effect across a wide group of publishers on Facebook, experts said, and its conclusions support the criticism that Facebook’s platform rewards publishers that put out misleading accounts, the report stated.

The study “helps add to the growing body of evidence that, despite a variety of mitigation efforts, misinformation has found a comfortable home — and an engaged audience — on Facebook,” according to the report which quoted Rebekah Tromble, director of the Institute for Data, Democracy and Politics at George Washington University, who reviewed the study’s findings.

And if you’re a Democrat or a Republican, don’t jump to the conclusion that your party members and outlets are not the ones contributing to the misinformation.  Researchers also found that statistically significant misinformation is politically neutral.  Meaning misinformation-trafficking pages on both the far left and the far right generated much more engagement from Facebook users than factual pages of any political slant.  It did find, however, that publishers on the far right have a much higher propensity to share misleading information than publishers in other political categories.

Those who rely on Facebook for their news probably shouldn’t.  While what some refer to as the mainstream media continues to provide more trustworthy news reports, there are those who don’t like those reports because they may not always support political beliefs.  In addition, some politicians use the social media platform to perpetuate false reports or misinformation.  They do that by attacking the news media and solid reporting from trustworthy sources.

All in all, it’s a confusing landscape out there.  All of us should beware of political information found on Facebook or other social media platforms.  That also goes for internet websites devoted to perpetuating misinformation or disinformation through “opinion pieces” that many people interpret as factual.  Anyone who wants to counter factual reports with misinformation can easily do so by cruising “tribal” internet sites.  

Thankfully, there are trustworthy news sites and there are a number of non-political fact checking sites that can help citizens wade through the misinformation.  The problem is many don’t want to be confused by the facts and it’s easier to just repeat falsehoods that only confirm or maintain a political bias.  In other words, many don’t believe anything that goes against their own beliefs, even if those beliefs are based on misinformaton or even lies.