Earlier this year Facebook announced that it would be extending its fact-checking program to Instagram as its defensive weapon against the onslaught of fake news. Currently undergoing a trial run in the US, it is soon to be rolled out globally. It works like this: when users see a post that they think is disinformation, they can report it. If posts are repeatedly reported, the photo is checked by a third-party which decides whether or not the photo will be marked with as fake news.
With almost 61 million Indonesians active on Instagram (around 20 percent of the population)[i], it is important to know who is doing the checking, realise the power they have and question whether social media giants such as Instagram should be deciding what is said and spread on their platforms.
Fake news is powerful. In the United States, where 62% of adults get their news on social media[ii], Allcott and Gentzkow[iii] present a correlation between the amount of pro-Donald Trump fake news and his triumph in the 2016 election. In another example closer to home, the power of fake news was demonstrated in Indonesia in the last presidential election in 2014, when Joko Widodo’s electivity was significantly affected by a smear campaign alleging that he was both communist and Chinese[iv]. Acting as an influencer of public opinion with doctored or fabricated photos, videos and stories, fake news thrives on social media platforms where posts are not checked for disinformation. Although these examples seem to cry out for a regulation that eliminates fake news, the weapon of fact-checking will prove to be more destructive than it is protective.
Fact Checking Creates Censorship
Fact-checking relies on allowing third-party checkers to determine whether posts are fake news or not. With 95 million photos being posted every day[v], Instagram outsources many different groups for fact-checking. It is undisclosed how many third-party groups Instagram uses for fact checking, however Facebook, the corporation that owns Instagram, has 55[vi]. By out-sourcing the task of fact-checking, Instagram is trusting these groups to abide by Instagram’s moral codes when they vet fake news.
While outsourcing to other groups increases efficiency, it also increases the risk that these groups can subtly manipulate content on Instagram to align with their own political or personal agendas. An example of this can be found in Facebook, which rolled out fact-checking in 2016[vii]. The progressive left-wing organisation ThinkProgress posted a story on Facebook speaking against US Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh – a conservative. This story was then fact-checked by right-wing group the WeeklyStandard, which deemed the story to be fake news, even though the story was factually accurate[viii]. This label of fake news on one of their posts resulted in ThinkProgress’s page being demoted and losing 80 percent of future traffic[ix]. This case is a clear demonstration that bias fact-checking groups could completely devastates entire organisation’s page on Facebook. This completely limits the scope and variety of ideas being shared and toes the line of becoming political censorship which is an infringement on free speech. As the model that is being rolled out onto Instagram is the very same as Facebook’s, it can be confidently assumed that these issues will persist on the photo sharing platform too.
Can and Should Instagram Implement Fact-Checking?
Another question to ask is does Instagram even have the capabilities or the authority to regulate what is being posted on its platform. With 95 million photos being posted a day from a multitude of countries and cultures, there are simply too many factors with which a fact-checker must deal with in order to determine whether a post is fake news or not[x]. Furthermore, not all posts are filtered through fact-checkers as the system functions right now. This causes problems as demonstrated in one study[xi] which found that when users see some posts flagged as fake news, they are more likely to perceive unflagged posts as true under the assumption that all posts are checked. This is significant as by doing nothing, fact-checkers are also sending a message. Additionally, is it the role of social media giants to be tampering with people’s liberty to share whatever they wish on their platforms? Social media was never intended to be a place for the dissemination of news or the criticism of journalists, but was designed as a place for the people, where any ideas, political or otherwise, can be shared. In October of this year, Facebook turned on its head and decided to not fact-check political ads[xii]. Zuckerberg said, “we don’t fact-check political ads. We don’t do this to help politicians, but because we think people should be able to see for themselves what politicians are saying”[xiii]. Although confusing as to why Facebook would stop fact-checking on one of its platforms but not Instagram, this new stance has merit. Deciding which posts are removed and which are not, opens a can of worms on regulating what and who gets to decide what is fake news, a role never was and should not be held by any social media.
While fake news certainly does present its own dangers, an analysis of the effect that implementing fact-checkers into Instagram reveals that fact-checking will only create more instability and manipulation on the platform. By outsourcing to third-party fact-checkers, Instagram is relinquishing control over its content and its purpose as a social media platform. This has proven on other platforms to lead to censorship of posts in favour of groups’ political agendas, such as in the Kavanaugh case. The entire premise of allowing third parties to regulate what is and is not allowed on Instagram, defeats the purpose of what social media is: not a news outlet, not a hive for journalism, but a free space to share opinions. Fact checking is far too elusive and vulnerable to manipulation for it to be a proper solution to fake news and should not be introduced to Instagram.
[i] Clement, J 2019, ‘Countries with the most Instagram users 2019’, Statistia, viewed on 29 November 2019, https://www.statista.com/statistics/578364/countries-with-most-instagram-users/
[ii] Allcott, H & Gentzkow, M. (2017). Social Media and Fake News in the 2016 Election. Journal of Economic Perspectives, vol.31, no.2
[iv] Lamb, K. (2019). Fake news spikes in Indonesia ahead of elections. The Guardian [online] Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/world/2019/mar/20/fake-news-spikes-in-indonesia-ahead-of-elections [Accessed 1 December 2019]
[v] 99 Firms. (2019). Instagram Marketing Statistics for Social Media Marketing Gurus. 99 Firms [online] Available at: https://99firms.com/blog/instagram-marketing-statistics/#gref [Accessed 29 November 2019]
[vi] Schiffer, Z. (2019). Facebook’s only fact-checking service in the Netherlands just quit. The Verge [online] Available at: https://www.theverge.com/2019/11/26/20984097/facebook-fact-checking-netherlands-quitpolitical-ads-lies-news-policy [Accessed 3 December 2019]
[vii] Harrison, S. (2019). Instagram Now Fact-Checks, but Who Will Do the Checking?. Wired [online] Available at: https://www.wired.com/story/instagram-fact-checks-who-will-do-checking/ [Accessed 1 December 2019]
[viii] Millhiser, I. (2018). Facebook’s idea of ‘fact-checkin’: Censoring ThinkProgress because conservative site told them to. ThinkProgress [online] Available at: https://thinkprogress.org/facebook-weekly-standard-fact-check-thinkprogress-6176df1d5749/ [Accessed 1 December 2019]
[ix] Zuckerberg, M. (2018). Mark Zuckerberg: Protecting democracy is an arms race. Here is how Facebook can help. The Washington Post [online] Available at: https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/mark-zuckerberg-protecting-democracy-is-an-arms-race-heres-how-facebook-can-help-win-it/2018/09/04/53b3c8ee-b083-11e8-9a6a-565d92a3585d_story.html [Accessed 2 December 2019]
[x] Harrison, S. (2019). Instagram Now Fact-Checks, but Who Will Do the Checking?. Wired [online] Available at: https://www.wired.com/story/instagram-fact-checks-who-will-do-checking/ [Accessed 1 December 2019]
[xi] Pennycook, G., Bear, A., Collins, E. and Rand, D.G. (2019). The Implied Truth Effect: Attaching Warnings to a Subset of Fake News Headlines Increases Perceived Accuracy of Headlines Without Warnings. Pennycook, G., Bear, A., Collins, E., & Rand, DG The implied truth effect: Attaching warnings to a subset of fake news headlines increases perceived accuracy of headlines without warnings. Management Science, Forthcoming.
[xii] Webb, K. 2019. Facebook’s News Boss blasted journalists calling for the company to ‘police’ speech in political ads, Business Insider [online] Available at: https://www.businessinsider.sg/facebook-news-chief-defends-fact-check-policy-political-ads-2019-10/?r=US&IR=T [Accessed 2 December 2019]
[xiii] Kang, C & Isaac, M. (2019). Defiant Zuckerberg Says Facebook Won’t Police Political Speech. The New York Times [online] Available at: https://www.nytimes.com/2019/10/17/business/zuckerberg-facebook-free-speech.html?module=inline [Accessed on 1 December 2019]