Is the rise in perceived ‘fake news’ causing lasting changes in the fabric of social media, and Facebook specifically?

We like to speak about the unspoken, and what better way to do this than to enter the pits of a nightmarish (or heaven-like) technology-led universe? Each week, we’ll be approaching a Tech Taboo topic that has caught the attention of our society for its potential to benefit or harm us. From provocative product launches to digital dangers, this series is called Tech Taboo for a reason…

‘Fake news’: a phrase that has seemingly come out of nowhere to become part of our everyday lexicon. Despite the fact that many of us now tend to use the term with a touch of irony, its origins – mainly allegations of Russian interference in the 2016 US election – have led to a bit of a reckoning of social media.

via GIPHY

Facebook themselves have described the Russian hacking scandal as opening ‘a new battleground’ for the tech industry. And the now perceived presence of fake news on social media has, in what is unlikely to be a coincidence, coincided with the reported decline of trust in social platforms by its users and of an increase in the consumption of traditional news sources.

Further compounding public suspicion of information found on social platforms, governments in both Europe and the US have started to seriously consider ways to curb the development of false information and, more recently, ‘hate speech’, across social media. This all raises the question whether the rise in perceived ‘fake news’ is causing lasting changes in the fabric of social media more widely, and Facebook specifically.  

Unilever announced only yesterday that they would boycott Facebook and Google if they didn’t get a handle over ‘fake news’ and false information. And some governments are even taking regulation into their own hands, with Germany issuing fines for the failure to remove hate speech on social platforms whilst Theresa May is pushing for big tech investors to pressure tech companies to be more proactive in recognising and removing hate speech and fake news.

Legislation Meets Censorship

It’s clear, then, that change across social is essential to combat the rising cynicism towards these platforms. But the implementation of legislation – at least in the form of fines – may not be the answer.

Firstly, what gets defined as ‘hate speech’? And who gets to do the defining? Facebook? Or maybe the government? Plus, lumping companies with fines, if anything, will lead them to be overzealous with their removal of content, causing censorship of information. And, if the government influenced censorship of social media, your imagination doesn’t have to work too hard to guess where we could end up… (1984, The Hunger Games, Brave New World.)

Facebook Tries to Soothe User Distrust

Facebook has been hit particularly hard with criticism, and in an effort to avoid government intervention and user skepticism, they have made a very public effort to demonstrate their determination to crack down on fake news and ultimately rebuild user trust. Reckoning with what they represent as a brand and what value they can offer consumers, they’re tweaking their newsfeed algorithm to preference local news and community-based posts, and are creating more transparency around who is paying for displayed advertising. Much of this raises questions about the future of branded and news-based content on Facebook.

This prioritisation of community-minded content will effectively demote the posts and shares of businesses and brands. Consequently, brands, agencies and news distributors will have to decrease their ‘click-baity’ posts and instead craft content which, although posted less regularly, is more meaningful. The focus will now need to be on core consumers and the cultivation of a community by demonstrating ‘authenticity’ and trustworthiness.

Trust Wins Out

So, what does all of this indicate for the future of social media?

Realistically, social media isn’t really going anywhere. However, big changes are on the horizon for Facebook as a provider of news and as an advertising platform. Predictions indicate that users will gravitate towards paid-for content in the belief it’s of higher quality and, crucially, more trustworthy. Further, Facebook’s shift towards becoming a platform that prioritises communities and users will likely impact the way brands use it to market and advertise to, but also engage with, their customers.

So, although social media revolutionised the distribution and consumption of news, and exploded the potential of business marketing, the rise of fake news has brought home the dangers of this trajectory. Further, it is becoming clear that consumers still insist on putting quality and trust before anything else, and that businesses will need to follow suit. 

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