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If you don’t share this story, Facebook might think it’s fake

A counterintuitive strategy to fight bogus news.

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Peter Kafka covers media and technology, and their intersection, at Vox. Many of his stories can be found in his Kafka on Media newsletter, and he also hosts the Recode Media podcast.

Yesterday Facebook said it would ask users and journalists for help identifying fake news. But it’s also doing some work on its own by training its software to watch for signs a story might be bogus.

And one of those signs might surprise you: Facebook says that stories people read, but don’t share, may be fake news stories.

Here’s how Facebook News Feed boss Adam Mosseri put it, in a post yesterday describing the company’s fake news strategy:

“We’ve found that if reading an article makes people significantly less likely to share it, that may be a sign that a story has misled people in some way. We’re going to test incorporating this signal into ranking, specifically for articles that are outliers, where people who read the article are significantly less likely to share it.”

This runs contrary to most people’s perception of fake news stories: Preposterous and popular, like the one about the Pope endorsing Donald Trump.

It may also be alarming to people who spend time thinking about ways to distribute non-fake news items on Facebook — i.e., just about everyone in the media business, for starters.

Does this mean that if people don’t share a story you publish on Facebook that Facebook will think your story is fake? If so, I’m doubly screwed, since lots of stuff I produce for Recode is quite resistant to Facebook sharing.

I talked to Mosseri, who told me to breathe easy, or at least easier. Facebook already knows the stuff I write doesn’t get shared very much. It’s looking for signs that something’s doing surprisingly poorly — and only after someone’s actually read it.

Here’s a slightly longer summary of my conversation with Mosseri:

  • When Facebook decides to show me something in my News Feed, it’s doing so because it thinks I’ll want to engage with it.
  • Facebook has a good sense of how any given piece of content will perform when it shows it to me.
  • If I click on/read a story and then don’t share it with my friends — and lots of other people also read it and then don’t share it — that’s a sign it may be “problematic content.”
  • One reason I may not share it, Mosseri says, is that the content of the story isn’t believable, or doesn’t sync with the headline and other descriptions of the story I saw before I clicked on it.

Okay, I think. But what about all the really popular fake news stories, which do get shared?

Mosseri wouldn’t say this out loud, but I’m assuming that one answer is: There are lots of gullible people, and since Facebook has 1.8 billion users, many of its users will be gullible. Another answer, which Mosseri was comfortable saying: “A lot of people share things without reading them.”

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