As the dust settles from the mushroom cloud that was the 2016 election and pundits try to assess what happened, one common culprit to point fingers at is the rise of fake news sites, website peddling totally false (and usually right-wing) stories alleging Hillary Clinton's deals with the devil and murder sprees. These sites, often boosted by Facebook, may have had an outsized influence in influencing voters' opinions. Though it's now obviously way too late, programmers are taking on the issue. So there's a browser plugin that can detect fake news on the internet. It's called the B.S. Detector, and it probably won't make a bit of difference to anyone.
Thanks to the way we now view news, through third-party aggregators like Facebook, all sources appear equal. A New York Times story gets the same weight as a fact-free concoction from, say, Breitbart, or the latest crazed conspiracy-theory blog post shared by your prepper uncle.
If you're on Facebook or Twitter, the B.S. Detector plugin will flag questionable stories with a warning, saving you from a click on a fabricated story. It works out on the real open web, too, showing the same warning—"This website is considered a questionable source"—when hovering over a link.
"This is a project I threw together in under an hour to push back against Mark Zuckerberg's claim that Facebook is unable to do something about the proliferation of fake news on their platform," writes the plugin's creator Daniel Sieradski, a New York-based writer and activist. The plugin, which works with Google's Chrome browser, is just 10 lines of code or so, and it relies on a hand-picked list of websites that are considered suspect. You can see the list and the code at Github.
"The list was compiled from various sources and consists chiefly of websites that traffic in fake news, parody news, unsourced claims, fabrications, innuendo, and conspiracy theory," writes Sieradski. "I have done my absolute best to stay wholly objective and as such the entries span the political spectrum."
As a tool to promote discussion, it's excellent, but as a real way to avoid fake news, it probably won't make a difference. After all, the kind of people who would install a Chrome browser plugin to detect fake news are the kinds of people who can probably already tell the difference. It might be handy to install it on computers of more gullible family members, but that's like using a Band Aid to treat a cancer.
The problem isn't just dodgy web domains. Even normally reliable sources can skew the news. When a reputable site like the Times keeps banging on about Hillary's email server, no fake news can be detected, because it's not fake news, even though it is certainly B.S.
While Sieradski's list is open for all to see, any technology like this is also open to abuse. If Facebook implements something similar, it will be accused of bias. And that may be exactly why it hasn't cleaned up its news. According to Gizmodo, Facebook has the tools to remove fake news from its site, but won't use them because it fears a backlash from the right.
Forty-four percent of all people in the U.S. get their news from Facebook, says Pew Research. According to Gizmodo's source, "They absolutely have the tools to shut down fake news." So why doesn't Facebook do it? Probably because it's worried about pissing off the Republicans. And why Republicans? Because most of that fake news comes from the political right.
Two years ago, Paul Krugman wrote in the NYT that "liberals don’t engage in the kind of mass rejections of evidence that conservatives do." Plenty of folks tried to prove him wrong, but "none of the claims measured up." Here's what he wrote:
Just to be clear: Yes, you can find examples where some liberals got off on a hobbyhorse of one kind or another, or where the liberal conventional wisdom turned out wrong. But you don’t see the kind of lockstep rejection of evidence that we see over and over again on the right. Where is the liberal equivalent of the near-uniform conservative rejection of climate science, or the refusal to admit that Obamacare is in fact reaching a lot of previously uninsured Americans?
It's not that liberals are individually more skeptical. It's that conservatives and liberals have different goals. The goals of the left are served by having access to good information, whereas those of the right are indifferent to truth. "Because liberals want government to accomplish something, they want to know whether government programs are actually working," writes Krugman. "[And] because conservatives don’t want the government doing anything except defense and law enforcement, they aren’t really interested in evidence about success or failure."
Accurate news, then, is sought out by the left, while the right remains indifferent to it. This may explain the proliferation of right-wing and fascist sources in Facebook's torrent of fake news. Liberals shy away from lies because accurate news is sacrosanct. Conservatives, meanwhile, don't have any such qualms, so they use lies as a political tool to achieve their goals.
That's why Facebook is scared to clean up its news. It would deprive the right and extreme right of a powerful political tool, and that will make a lot of people angry. And guess what? Those angry people will have no problem leaving, and taking their monetizeable eyeballs elsewhere. So while B.S. Detector is a good thought experiment to show that Facebook could clean up fake news if it wanted to, don't expect it to go away any time soon: A lot of people have shown they don't care what's fake or what's real—and the urge to make money from them will always be greater than any sense of civic good.