Commentary

Facebook's Crackdown On Disguised News Has Pitfalls

One of the more miserable side effects of the disappearance of local newspapers in the U.S. is the rush to fill the void with partisan websites that pose as local publications.

Several news reports indicate the sites are published by shadowy organizations seeking to spread propaganda or to compile lists of email addresses to sell.

Facebook this week announced a crackdown on those sites, saying they no longer will appear in its Facebook News tab, which mostly features articles from mainstream publishers. The company also will hold those sites to a stricter standard that applies to political advertising. It will not allow them to claim a "news exemption" when they advertise on the social network.
The policy may help to reduce the spread of political propaganda on Facebook, but only as much as the company is able to vet publications and suss out their political affiliations. According to its policy, it will consider a publication as political if it's owned by an entity or individual that meets certain criteria.
It's easy to see plenty of pitfalls in this verification process, especially if a fake news publisher is really intent on duping Facebook. Anyone can set up a shell company and produce documentation to look legitimate, then create a website with a thin veneer of content taken from other sources. I've seen my stories scraped and posted on scam sites that appear to front for programmatic ad fraud.
Unfortunately, partisan sites posing as local news outlets appear to be proliferating, according to a report last year by the Columbia Journalism Review. While the report mostly focuses on networks of fake local news sites that spread conservative talking points, progressive groups also are getting in on the action.

As reported last month by Politico, a Democratic-aligned digital organization called Acronym set up a news outlet called Courier to publish friendly articles about Democratic candidates. Courier spent more than $1.4 million on Facebook advertising to expand the reach of those stories.
With a recent study indicating that many readers can't tell the difference between news and opinion among mainstream outlets, the electorate is becoming more misinformed by propaganda that mimics news. And we're supposed to trust that Facebook knows the difference.

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