Facebook’s Fake News Scandal – Could It Happen To Your Startup?

Fake News

At first they considered it barely worth mentioning. Then they decided it was worth mentioning in passing. Then they denied it could make a difference. Then they laughed at it. And now they’re taking it a little more seriously.

Nope, I am not referring to the Trump Presidential campaign, but to Facebook’s fake news scandal.

Who? Us? Allowing fake news stories to spread like wildfire across our network potentially persuading a large chunk of the American Rust Belt to turn away from Hilary, and back the Donald? We have no idea what you are talking about. Oh, that!

Yes, that – this is what happens when you give a human’s job – trying to impose moral order on a world that is naturally inclined to resist it at times – to a robot – a mean old algorithm that doesn’t judge – but serves up any old crap you tell it instead.

An investigation by BuzzFeed reveals that, in the final three months of the US election, top performing fake election stories on Facebook garnered more engagement than real news stories. 8.7m shares for the 20 best performing pieces of content generated by fake new sites, hoax publications and “hyper-partisan blogs” – versus just 7.4m shares, reactions and comments from 19 major news websites.

Wow. Today’s big tech imponderable is no longer “are we living in a computer simulation?”. The question is “are we living in an episode of circa mid 1980’s Dynasty?”. But the truly scary thing is that even the boss of Facebook is struggling to know how to deal with or control the fallout.

Mark runs a pretty active Facebook page, and on 6th November he can be found discussing Facebook’s triumph in persuading 2 million people to register to vote via Facebook. “We hope to encourage millions of people who might otherwise stay home to get engaged on election day.” The only problem is, those same people who were being encouraged to get out and vote were the same people being fed fake news stories!

Zuck discusses fake news in a post on 13th November and 19th November, when he comments “historically, we have relied on our community to help us understand what is fake and what is not.” This is also troubling because it suggests that Facebook has little control over the news it generates and relies on its users to bail it out of trouble. Sure, it sells a lot of advertising, so the company’s share-holders are happy, but at what price?

We have also heard that Facebook shows its users the news and stories it thinks they want to see. Democrats get pro-Democrat propaganda which may or not be true, Republicans get Pro-Republic propaganda which may or not be true. And some of us just get lots and lots of pictures of skate-boarding cats!

Take Care Of Your Data & Don’t Let Things Spiral Out Of Control!

So, what about your startup? One of the first things any founder who is building a platform that will take users’ data and provide them with information in exchange ought to think about is how they should police the data going in both directions.

Are you giving your users sufficient reward for all that information about themselves they are sharing with you? There’s nothing worse than a perfunctory platform that gives you a poor service in exchange for your email, postcode, date of birth, number of dependants and so on and so on.

Let’s say you are recommending products and services – are you reviewing each new sign-up to make sure they can do what they say they can do? Or are you so busy negotiating deals with third party providers you are focusing on driving new users instead of giving existing ones the service they deserve.

Have you decided that the ends justify the means? Users may suffer in the short term but hey, we’re changing the world here. They’ll just have to wait until we can afford that extra level of security – we’re focused on scaling as fast as we can.

And finally, are you guilty of double standards – on the one hand you are pushing your own agenda, or you are allowing “the community” to police themselves. But when they do something you didn’t expect – start sharing spurious data, take a political view that you disagree with – suddenly your “it’s up to them how they use it” attitude disappears as fast as your knowing smile.

You may not think it matters in the early stages, but if you’d have asked a younger Zuck how he’d feel if he helped get Donald Trump Elected President one day, he probably would have laughed at you. He’s probably not laughing so hard right now.

Even the best get caught out from time to time – if you don’t have a moral code or mission statement to fall back on, then your users’ and advertisers definitely won’t.

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