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Wednesday, 27 December 2017 08:21

Fairfax handles Facebook with kid gloves over fake news

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After a barrage of criticism over its inability — and apparent lack of concern — in stopping fake news flooding its platform both during and after the 2016 US presidential election, Facebook got its Christmas gift early – a soft, puff piece in the Australian Financial Review that paints it as a crusader against the spread of incorrect information.

No hard questions were asked of the company by the AFR's associate editor, digital, John McDuling, who travelled to the offices of the social media behemoth, with the trip being funded by an ACS/National Press Club journalism award.

McDuling confirmed to iTWire that the trip was not in any way sponsored by Facebook.

The AFR is owned by Fairfax Media which signed a deal with Facebook two years ago so that its articles appear among the social media site's Instant Articles – "the service hosts news articles on Facebook's News Feed so readers don't have to click through to another website".

But this was not mentioned by McDuling in his 2134-word piece.

The effort McDuling spent in travelling to California appears to have been wasted, with much of his article spent on detailing the history of the organisation, and material from other sources.

McDuling did not offer a straight answer when asked whether he did not think it worthwhile to question the explanation offered by Facebook's chief security officer Alex Stamos in October to explain away the fake news phenomenon.

Stamos issued a series of tweets which were laughable, to put it mildly. The thrust of his argument was that Facebook's algorithm was responsible – forgetting that it was the organisation itself that created this algorithm. It was a rather weak attempt to shift the blame; that he wasn't called on it is entirely due to the fact that many media organisations are afraid to question big tech companies.

McDuling's response was: "On your second point re Stamos – not really sure what you are getting at there." My question was straightforward: "Second, in October, Alex Stamos, the chief security officer of Facebook, had issued a series of tweets to explain why fake news spread on the platform. Did you not think it worthwhile to question some of his assumptions?"

No questions were asked by McDuling about Facebook's "apparent unwillingness to pay for a fact-checking process that relies entirely upon voluntary action of users and a handful of non-partisan organisations", as the Guardian put it.

He was content to accept this statement from Sarah Su, a product manager on Facebook's News Feed team: "We're under a lot of scrutiny. We get yelled at a lot. And we don't really get credit for the progress we have been making. But it's an important problem, and it's what keeps me up at night."

Exactly what progress has been made is open to question. But McDuling left it at that.

Facebook has also come under fire for not properly investigating any likely Russian influence on the Brexit referendum in Britain. But this also did not figure in McDuling's questions.

As recently as October, Facebook displayed fake news about the mass shooting in Las Vegas in which 59 people were killed. No questions were asked about this, either.

Elsewhere the AFR article tried to put the best possible interpretation on whatever "efforts" Facebook has made to stop fake news being published. Like this: "We are really trying to understand what is the difference between good engagement, that actually indicates that you, the reader, are getting value," says Greg Marra, director of product management on the News Feed team, "and spammy engagement where someone is trying to get the most distribution ... because they kind of want to trick you".

McDuling appears to have been given access only to very low-level executives at Facebook during his visit there. Asked about this, he responded: "Last point on seniority – you would have to check with FB on that. I didn’t meet with (Mark) Zuckerberg or (Sheryl) Sanders if that’s what you mean."

This approach appears to be in keeping with the AFR's general method of going easy on corporates. Many reporters argue that asking hard questions will cut off access. But a soft piece ends up achieving the opposite effect – it paints a villain in rosy hues.

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Sam Varghese

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Sam Varghese has been writing for iTWire since 2006, a year after the site came into existence. For nearly a decade thereafter, he wrote mostly about free and open source software, based on his own use of this genre of software. Since May 2016, he has been writing across many areas of technology. He has been a journalist for nearly 40 years in India (Indian Express and Deccan Herald), the UAE (Khaleej Times) and Australia (Daily Commercial News (now defunct) and The Age). His personal blog is titled Irregular Expression.

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