Jan. 24, 2018 – Reporters Without Borders (RSF) is concerned about Facebook’s announcement on January 19 that it wants its users to help determine the reliability of the news and information it provides via its News Feed. RSF fears this could be counter-productive and could just fuel the phenomenon of disinformation.

A week after announcing that the News Feed will henceforth show more content from friends and family, Facebook owner and co-founder Mark Zuckerberg has continued to play sorcerer’s apprentice. His latest scheme, asking his users to decide whether journalistic content can be trusted, is supposed to combat “sensationalism, misinformation and polarization” – in other words, fake news.

Under the proposed method – to be tested in the United States before being rolled out worldwide – Facebook plans to poll a sample of its users, firstly asking them whether they know individual media outlets, then asking them to score the outlets they know for trustworthiness. At the end of the polling process, media outlets that have received the highest combined score will be given more visibility in the News Feed.

Relying on the ‘wisdom of crowds’ to decide which news websites are trustworthy is illusory and can prove dangerous,” RSF secretary-general Christophe Deloire said. “You cannot use polling and belief as the basis for establishing facts. Journalism is an investigative process based on rigorous, fact-verification methods resulting in complete, reliable information that respects the truth.

Creating opportunity for digital hired hands

At a time when Facebook is being invaded more and more by disinformation and polarized opinion, it is hard to imagine that its users will be the most objective judges for determining which news sources are reliable.

Treating connected users as arbiters of news and information assumes that they are good at protecting themselves from disinformation. But in a world of constant information overload, one that exaggerates the phenomenon of filter bubbles, such “democratic vetting” seems unlikely to result in the eradication of fake news or even an objective reliability ranking, and it would be conducted in the absence of any journalistic standards.

RSF is also concerned about the possibility of troll interference in the information filtering process. State or political groups using so-called “astroturfing” techniques, deliberately amplified by sponsoring and advertising, will be able to influence the polling and thereby give more visibility to the media outlets they support at the expense of independent ones.

There is no lack of examples of digital mercenaries operating in social networks at the behest of authoritarian regimes. In Thailand, more than 100,000 students were trained as “cyber-scouts” to track down and report online activity that could threaten “national security” while government supporters scrutinized Facebook closely in order to report users expressing the least criticism of the monarchy.

In India, Narendra Modi’s Hindu nationalist party, the BJP, managed to get elected in 2014 with the help of dedicated members using aggressive methods on social networks. Modi’s so-called “yoddhas” target all those who dare to criticize their leader and have compiled a hit-list of journalists to be harassed.

To combat fake news, RSF is working on a project for the creation of journalistic standards based on prior, neutral and independent verification. They would make it possible to incorporate strict criteria into algorithmic operations. Dozens of media outlets of different nationalities, and organizations representing publishers, editors, journalist unions and advertisers were brought together by RSF to discuss this project.