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Facebook would rather shush false news than shut it off completely – CNET

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It may sometimes seem like Facebook has a split personality when it comes to handling fake news.

Jaap Arriens/NurPhoto via Getty Images

Facebook can't get its story straight on fake news.

Over the last two years, the company has been ramping up its efforts to fight disinformation, after realizing that people had been using the social network to push propaganda to millions of people. Despite its efforts, however, hoaxes continue to pop up, while pages pushing conspiracy theories thrive.

This week, Facebook tried to offer an explanation for why it allows pages that post false news, hoaxes and propaganda to stay in business, arguing that it is defending free speech. Much of the ensuing debate centered on the notorious conspiracy theory site InfoWars and whether its Facebook page should be shut down.

We see Pages on both the left and the right pumping out what they consider opinion or analysis – but others call fake news. We believe banning these Pages would be contrary to the basic principles of free speech.

— Facebook (@facebook) July 12, 2018

The social network said it would rather demote the posts spreading misinformation than ban the source outright. The approach means that these pages don't get as many views as they used to, but they still live to spread misinformation. Facebook said pages lose about 80 percent of views when they're demoted.

"We just don't think banning Pages for sharing conspiracy theories or false news is the right way to go," Facebook said in a tweet on Thursday. "They seem to have YouTube and Twitter accounts too — we imagine for the same reason."

YouTube did not respond to a request for comment about whether it allowed such posts on similar grounds. A Twitter spokesman said the company doesn't comment on individual accounts, but did said it "should not be the arbiter of truth."

Facebook's stance contradicts the efforts the company has outlined for fighting fake news.

During an event at Facebook's offices in New York on Wednesday, the social network played a nearly 12-minute video showcasing its fight against false news to a roomful of journalists.

At one point, Eduardo Ariño de la Rubia, a data science manager for News Feed Integrity at Facebook, called out content like Pizzagate as a hoax and false news, mentioning, "we have to get this right if we're going to regain people's trust." Pizzagate, a conspiracy theory that InfoWars' Alex Jones pushed and later apologized for, claiming that Democrats were operating a child sex ring out of a DC pizzeria.

Other hoaxes mentioned in the video include misinformation falsely claiming an undocumented immigrant started the Napa Valley wine country fires, and an image of a Seattle Seahawks player edited to show him with a burning American flag.

Facebook pointed to all those examples of misinformation, telling reporters that it's dedicated to regaining public trust and eradicating hoaxes on what is, with 2 billion people visiting at least once a month, the largest social network in the world.

But when CNN's Oliver Darcy asked why InfoWars was still allowed on the social network with over 900,000 followers, Facebook's head of News Feed, John Hegeman, explained that InfoWars didn't violate any rules.

"Just for being false doesn't violate the community standards," Hegeman said. "They haven't violated something that would result in something being taken down."

Despite showing those three examples of fake news on Facebook, the pages behind those posts are still up.

Vets for Trump, a page with more than 120,000 followers, was behind the Seattle Seahawks post. While the image has been removed, the page is still around and gaining followers.

The misinformation about the undocumented immigrant starting the Napa Valley wildfires came from Breitbart, which is also still on Facebook with more than 3.8 million followers.

At the event, Sara Su, Facebook's product specialist for the News Feed, said the social network doesn't classify posts as hoaxes itself — instead relying on outside fact-checkers to label the content.

"For the hoax classifiers, third-party fact-checking is the best source of ground truth that we have," she said.

Facebook didn't immediately respond to a request for comment Friday.

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