There’s misinformation on Facebook. Here’s how you deal with it.

I’ll keep this short and to the point. There’s a sudden backlash on Facebook for hosting misinformation [1], and polar politics [2] after the recent elections in the USA. Is this new? NO.

Let me take you to back in time, to March 2014. The deeply tragic incident of the Malaysian Airlines Flight MH370 wiped off an entire aircraft and all on board [3]. A sea of prayers and solidarity followed on all social networks including Facebook. What also followed was a series of fake, misinformative posts, links, and videos claiming to show you the footage of the aircraft crashing [4], and rumors claiming that the plane had been found in the Bermuda triangle (see image of one such post below). Such footage never existed.

http://www.hoax-slayer.com/images/malaysia-airlines-MH370-scam-1.jpg

Following this incident, there have been a series of events where miscreants have exploited the context of a popular event to spread hoaxes, misinformation, rumors, fake news, etc. From the rumor of the death of comic actor Rowan Atkinson (a.k.a. Mr. Bean) to the suicide video by late legendary actor Robin Williams, misinformation has plagued Facebook for years, and is continuing to do so. While Facebook has recently acknowledged misinformation to be a serious problem, we at Precog had already started working on it when we first came across instances of misinformation. So how do you really deal with misinformation and rumors and hoaxes and fake news on Facebook?

There have been a few attempts to solve this problem. Facebook posted a series of blogs vowing to improve their algorithms to reduce misinformation, hoaxes, rumors, clickbaiting, etc. [8, 9, 10, 11, 12]. A recently conducted hackathon by Princeton University also witnessed a group of 4 students attempting to fix this problem [13]. Well, as it turns out, we took a dig at this problem over 2 years ago, and came up with a robust solution of our own. In August 2015, we publicly launched Facebook Inspector, a free, easy-to-use browser extension that identifies malicious content (including the type we just discussed above) in real time. At this moment, Facebook Inspector has over 200 daily active users, and has just crossed 5,000,000 hits (it’s 5 million; but it’s just fun to write it with so many zeros xD). We leveraged multiple crowd sourcing mechanisms to gather a pool of misinformative and other types of malicious posts, and harnessed them to generate a model to automatically identify misinformative posts, hoaxes, rumors, scams, etc.

Give it a try. Download the Chrome version at https://chrome.google.com/webstore/detail/facebook-inspector/jlhjfkmldnokgkhbhgbnmiejokohmlfc

Firefox users, download at https://addons.mozilla.org/en-US/firefox/addon/fbi-facebook-inspector/

To read the entire story behind the inception of the idea, and incarnation of Facebook Inspector, read the detailed technical report here.

So we spotted a problem a couple of years ago, took a dig at solving it (and I’d like to believe we succeeded), and apparently, the entire world is after Facebook for the same problem today. But misinformation, hoaxes, and rumors aren’t the only big problems that Facebook is surrounded by. Lets talk some more about the US elections. Facebook’s algorithms have been accused of reinforcing “political polarization” by Professor Filippo Menczer in a popular news article [2]. Apparently, Facebook is home to a big bunch of political groups which post polarized content to influence users towards / against certain political beliefs. Whether such content should be allowed on social networking websites, is debatable. After all, free speech is a thing! But the question that demands attention here is, did these politically polarized entities suddenly appear on Facebook around the election time? I mean, if they would’ve been around for long, Facebook would’ve known, right? And the effects of social network content on elections are well known and studied [5, 6, 7]. So Facebook would’ve definitely done something to at least nudge users when getting exposed to polarized political content. But polarized political content was never a point of concern for Facebook. So it probably didn’t exist until right before the elections. Right? Wrong!

Well, this is a literal “I told you so moment.” Last year, we conducted a large scale study of malicious Facebook pages, and one of our main findings was the dominant presence of politically polarized entities on Facebook among malicious pages. We analyzed the content posted by these politically polarized pages, and found that negative sentiment, anger, and religion dominated within such content. We reported our findings in the form of a technical report: https://arxiv.org/abs/1510.05828v1

It is good to know that what you work on, as part of research, connects closely to relevant, present day, real world problems, but it isn’t really a good feeling to realize that something you already knew could happen, happens anyway. We at Precog always push towards trying to make a difference and making the online world better and safer. We try our best, but we can only do so much.

To conclude, not bragging here (well, it’s not bragging if it’s true!), but we saw not one, but two real problems coming, more than a year before Facebook did.

You see, we’re called “Precog” for a reason. *mic drop*

References

[1] https://techcrunch.com/2016/11/10/facebook-admits-it-must-do-more-to-stop-the-spread-of-misinformation-on-its-platform/

[2] https://www.theguardian.com/technology/2016/nov/10/facebook-fake-news-election-conspiracy-theories

[3] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Malaysia_Airlines_Flight_370

[4] https://www.scamwatch.gov.au/news/scammers-using-videos-of-malaysian-airlines-flight-mh370-to-spread-malware

[5] Williams, Christine B., and Girish J. Gulati. “Social networks in political campaigns: Facebook and the 2006 midterm elections.” annual meeting of the American Political Science Association. Vol. 1. No. 11. 2007.

[6] Williams, Christine B., and J. Girish. “Social networks in political campaigns: Facebook and the congressional elections of 2006 and 2008.” New Media & Society (2012): 1461444812457332.

[7] Douglas, Sara, et al. “Politics and young adults: the effects of Facebook on candidate evaluation.” Proceedings of the 15th Annual International Conference on Digital Government Research. ACM, 2014.

[8] https://newsroom.fb.com/news/2015/01/news-feed-fyi-showing-fewer-hoaxes/

[9] http://newsroom.fb.com/news/2016/08/news-feed-fyi-further-reducing-clickbait-in-feed/

[10] http://newsroom.fb.com/news/2014/11/news-feed-fyi-reducing-overly-promotional-page-posts-in-news-feed/

[11] http://newsroom.fb.com/news/2014/08/news-feed-fyi-click-baiting/

[12] http://newsroom.fb.com/news/2014/04/news-feed-fyi-cleaning-up-news-feed-spam/

[13] http://www.businessinsider.in/It-only-took-36-hours-for-these-students-to-solve-Facebooks-fake-news-problem/articleshow/55426656.cms