Fake news dominated the discussion at Facebook’s annual shareholder meeting on Wednesday.
The company received several questions and comments from investors about what it was doing to combat false stories and hoaxes posted to its site, and had to fend off a shareholder resolution urging the company publish a report about the extent of the problem and how the social media giant is handling it.
The steps Facebook has taken so far have been too little, too late, said Natasha Lamb, a managing partner at Arjuna Capital.
“Fabricated news stories cause a great deal of confusion about basic facts and events,” Lamb said. “Facebook is at risk if it maintains a platform of distortion.”
Facebook is trying to address the problem, company CEO Mark Zuckerberg told shareholders. One thing it’s already doing is focusing on the “spammers” that are the source of much of the fake news, he said. Those users are more interested in making money through ad impressions than trying to espouse any particular political views, he said. Facebook has focused on blocking those users from using its ad platform and has already seen “good results,” he said.
But, he said, “There’s a lot more that we can do.”
The issue of fake news being spread on social networks was placed in the spotlight during last year’s presidential election. Some political observers attribute Hillary Clinton’s loss in part to such misinformation, which they say helped undermine her campaign. Clinton herself brought up the subject at the Code Conference on Wednesday, charging that Russia had “weaponised” social networks like Facebook to spread fake stories about her. Clinton called on Facebook in particular to “prevent fake news from creating a new reality.”
At the shareholder meeting, the Rev. Jesse Jackson chimed in, saying, “the impact of fake news is about to destroy us.”
Despite the heightened concerns and pressure on Facebook regarding the spread of misinformation on its service, investors voted down the shareholder proposal. That’s not much of a surprise, though, given the company officially opposed the measure and Zuckerberg controls a majority of shareholder votes.
Zuckerberg said Facebook is trying to balance giving users the freedom to share what they’d like while ensuring users have access to credible information. With that in mind, he and other Facebook officials said the company is taking multiple steps to address the fake news problem.
In addition to trying to undermine spammers, for example, the company has started to fact-check certain stories posted to its site, Zuckerberg said. When a certain number of users flag particular articles, Facebook’s fact checkers will look into them. If they can’t verify the stories, Facebook will append notices to posts about them that their facts are in dispute, he said.
Additionally, Facebook is consulting with academics, media companies and other experts to figure out how to address the problem, said Sheryl Sandberg, the company’s chief operating officer.
“We know false news goes against what people want on Facebook,” Sandberg said. “You’re going to continue to see more efforts from us.”