Free speech is great, right? Employed with the corresponding responsibility, it can be used to highlight social issues, spread information about cover ups and generally enlighten people.
When it comes to Facebook, freedom of speech is a given in the eyes of most users. However, this isn’t really the case at all. Facebook users need to keep in mind the fact that they are actually members of a service that is owned and controlled by someone else.
Facebook is a social playground, but you don’t own the facilities.
Even with this fact highlighted, the new Facebook flagging system is concerning. Introduced ostensibly to help Facebook remove fake news stories, thereby stopping such a post going viral, it turns out that the feature is open to abuse.
Hoax News Stories: A Genuine Threat To Security & Privacy
Stopping fake news stories is very important. A quick Google search for a term such as “Michael Caine RIP” will soon take you to en.mediamass.net/people/michael-caine/deathhoax.html, a website that ghoulishly generates income by displaying “death hoax” news reports.
These pages are generated using the key details of the celebrity’s life and career, and the content is largely interchangeable. Often, a notice within the article will highlight that the report was a hoax, muddying the waters further still.
As hoaxes go, however, these are the “nice” side of the phenomenon.
The dark side, meanwhile, is the malware-laden or otherwise dangerous hoaxes that get shared and go viral on Facebook. Naturally we need to avoid following these links, so the introduction of a hoax post option on Facebook is appreciated.
Let’s take a look at how that works.
How To Highlight “Fake” News Stories on Facebook
You see a news story on Facebook. You know it to be fake or grossly inaccurate. What do you do?
Begin by clicking the down arrow in the top-right of a news item shared on your Facebook feed, and select I don’t like this post, followed by I think it shouldn’t be on Facebook. In the next screen, you’ll see a list of options, all of which are quite fair and useful:
By selecting Something else, you open a new list, where you will find the option we’re looking for, It’s a false news story. Once selected, the item will be flagged internally, and removed from your feed. If enough people react the same way to the post, then it will be removed from Facebook itself.
This is a great way of stopping hoaxes going viral (something that is relatively straightforward to do). Naturally, it is open to abuse.
Other Flags That Might Be Used To Remove Stories From Facebook
By offering the hoax flagging system, Facebook intends to make it easier to discard items that threaten the security of its users. Other options exist, however, that make the ability to report, bury and remove items a little more sinister.
Rather than selecting the false news story option, it’s possible to flag an item because It goes against my views. Facebook cites examples to help you decide, suggesting you use this option if the news post upsets your personal values, religion or politics.This is an uncomfortable development. Up until recently it was the case that if you don’t like something that someone says on Facebook, you could remove them from your friends list or “silence” them from your feed. Flagging such content has echoes of East Germany and other communist-era snitching; frankly, if you’re not mature enough to handle differing beliefs and opinions, you probably shouldn’t be online at all.
Stories that might offer an alternative political viewpoint could be subjected to the same sort of reporting as a hoax, or flagged because they’re deemed “offensive”. That calculation is useful here. One or two people objecting will make little difference. Dozens or hundreds, however, will result in an algorithm being executed, and the item being reviewed with a view to removal.
With the one hand, Facebook removes hoax items, thereby helping to protect online security and privacy. This is commendable. But what good does enabling a group of people to highlight a news story for removal because it carries views that they are uncomfortable with?
Government Employed Keyboard Warriors vs Freedom of Speech
You probably already know that government departments employ armies of commenters to manipulate discussions on bulletin boards, comment threads and social networks. You may have read about the 77th Brigade in the United Kingdom, a recently revived military unit charged with managing the official narrative of international events. In both cases, software that enables the operator to manage multiple accounts is employed, creating government mandated sock puppets.
The potential for abuse in this new Facebook flagging system is clear. Moreover, those in charge of the social network are not being clear about this new feature, nor about the presence of, let’s call them “professional manipulators”. Ultimately, the entire service is being played by people who don’t have your interests at heart: advertisers, scammers, government alphabet agencies and the owners. How long will it take before reading “unapproved” news stories or expressing views that are at odds with those considered acceptable by the Facebook lands you in trouble?
Are you still using Facebook? Perhaps you’re finally getting fed up with what the social network is becoming? Let us know what you think.