How to filter out fake news

By Felix Salmon
February 7, 2011
Nick Denton uses Facebook as his news delivery mechanism of choice:

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Nick Denton uses Facebook as his news delivery mechanism of choice:

I consume most of my news in email and (more recently) Facebook. I think Zuckerberg has created the personalized news engine we always dreamed of. My friends are a pretty good proxy for my tastes. And it’s a lot easier to enter and prune a friend list than it is to define one’s tastes by keyword.

I find this fascinating, and surprising. I share news items on Twitter, but not on Facebook, and very few of my Facebook friends seem remotely inclined to post news links — the news to non-news ratio on Facebook is much higher lower, at least for me, than it is on Twitter. Then again, I don’t have Nick’s friends, and I don’t have nearly as many friends as Nick, who’s up to 1,319 at last count, and rising.

Facebook does an OK job at filtering: stories are more likely to show up in your Top News feed if they’ve been liked or commented on a lot. But when I turn to Flipboard for my personalized news, I’ll find much more interesting and relevant material in the Twitter section than in the Facebook section. And the counts aren’t that far apart: I follow 775 people on Twitter, and have 498 Facebook friends. It’s just that Facebook is much better at providing conversations, and photos from my friends’ lives, while Twitter seems better at pointing me to news. Which makes it all the more interesting to me how Denton’s mileage varies — it’s an important lesson in the limits of extrapolation. What works for me, online, might well not work for you.

Denton continues with a great smackdown on much of the news industry:

Q: What irritates you in the print and online media world?

Denton: Fake news. I don’t mean fake news in the Fox News sense. I mean the fake news that clogs up most newspapers and most news websites, for that matter. The new initiative will go nowhere. The new policy isn’t new at all. The state won’t go bankrupt. The product isn’t revolutionary. And journalists pretend that these official statements and company press releases actually constitute news…

To follow the daily or hourly news cycle is the media equivalent of day-trading: it’s frenzied, pointless and usually unprofitable. I’d much rather read an item which just showed me the photos or documents. And if you’re going to write some text, take a position or explain something to me. Give me opinion or reference; just don’t pretend you’re providing news. That’s not news.

This is one of the reasons why personal blogs still feel so fresh and useful in the face of professional operations which update dozens of times per day. And I suspect it’s also one of the factors behind the Gawker redesign — Denton knows full well that much of what appears in the Gawker Media network falls broadly under his category of “fake news”, which is why he spends his morning firing off “irritable emails about headlines, photos, lame press releases masquerading as stories”. He doesn’t want that stuff to be the first material that a visitor to one of his websites sees, and so he’s redesigned things to be able to always feature a genuinely strong story rather than what happens to be the most recent thing posted.

The one thing you can say about both Twitter and Facebook as news-filtering mechanisms is that they do a very good job of filtering out the fake news. But I still think there can and will be better solutions. A friend of mine told me a few months ago that filtering could be the new search, and I think he might be right; I personally have plans to try to do something fun and powerful with filtering, which with any luck you’ll be able to see quite soon. Facebook’s good, in the fight against fake news. But we can definitely do better.

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