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March 10, 2017, 10:28 a.m.
Audience & Social

“It had gotten so big I thought I better pull the plug”: Updates from the fake-news world

Plus: European investigations, the complexities of fact-checking “fact-based opinions”, and how kids deal with fake news.

The growing stream of reporting on and data about fake news, misinformation, partisan content, and news literacy is hard to keep up with. This weekly roundup offers the highlights of what you might have missed.

Facebook won a case in German court against Anas Modamani, a Syrian refugee whose selfie with Angela Merkel showed up in fake news reports that linked him to terrorist attacks. From The New York Times:

Judge Volkmar Seipel ruled that there were no grounds for an injunction because Facebook had not in any way manipulated the content, which would have made it legally responsible for the distribution. The judge added that a host provider, according to the European Union’s electronic commerce laws, could be held responsible for eliminating content from its site only when it was considered technically possible.

Meanwhile, Facebook reported the BBC to the police this week for its investigation into child pornography spread on the platform. “If nothing else, this episode underlines how difficult it is to complain about disturbing content and then be assured that Facebook will respond,” wrote Jane Martinson in The Guardian:

The cynical among us could even look at Facebook’s behavior and see an attempt to frighten off journalists who want to hold the powerful to account. [BBC reporter Angus] Crawford, now possibly under investigation by the police, is an employee of the BBC, one of the few news outlets not increasingly dependent on Facebook for revenue.

The U.K.’s newspaper lobby, the News Media Association, asked for an investigation into Google, Facebook, and digital advertisers’ role in the spread of fake news as part of Parliament’s ongoing investigation into fake news. “The digital supply chain rewards the distributors of content, not the originators,” said NMA chairman Ashley Highfield. “Government and regulators cannot ignore forever the impact of the Google-Facebook duopoly on our media landscape.” In its submission, the NMA claimed that it’s been more difficult for fake news to spread in Britain than in the U.S. “because we still have a robust news media sector in this country” (it points to a Brexit-inspired “spike in demand for newspapers,” though the same thing is happening in the U.S.) but says “the conditions that enable a fake news industry to thrive could be gaining ground here.” The Culture, Media, and Sport Committee conducting the investigation clearly agrees: “Social media is a mature industry that takes the lion’s share of advertising,” Damian Collins, the chair of the committee, said this week, adding that the investigation will now also take the Facebook BBC issue into account. “If we reach a tipping point where the level and virality of fake news is such it is crowding out [real] news, it is a challenge to democracy.” The results of the inquiry are expected this spring.

The German public broadcaster Deutsche Welle took a look this week at efforts to counter the spread of spurious information about refugees online. In one instance, the “Einzelfall Map” uses Google Maps to plot what it says are crimes committed by foreigners. A team of German journalists attempting to verify the data found that “the site refers almost exclusively to crimes purported to have been committed by Arabs, Turks and Albanians,” “criminals’ foreign backgrounds could not be verified in 70 percent of the cases” investigated.

“It had gotten so big I thought I had better pull the plug.” PolitiFact spoke with the founder of, a fake news site started for funsies by James McDaniel, an American living in Costa Rica. “I think that almost every story I did, or at least the successful ones, relayed off of things that Trump supporters already believed. Obama is a Muslim terrorist. Hillary [Clinton] is a demonic child trafficker,” McDaniel said. He posted his stories to Trump fan groups on Facebook, but “his fake story about Whoopi Goldberg condemning Carryn Owens, the widow of the Navy SEAL killed in January’s Yemen raid, convinced him to stop.” He made $615 in ad revenue that he told PolitiFact he plans to donate “to the 2020 Democratic presidential nominee.” The site is still up, with disclaimers.

Fact-checking involves “complicated editorial judgments.” “For us, the bigger complexity is what we think of as fact-based opinions,” Peter Canby, the chief fact-checker at The New Yorker, said in a panel at the Columbia Journalism School Monday night, covered by CJR. “The way you construct an argument, if there are egregious missing ingredients to it, then it’s something we bring up.”

Forty-four percent of 10- to 18-year-olds say they know how to tell fake news stories from real ones, according to a survey done by nonprofit Common Sense Media. Seventy percent said they “sometimes” or “often” try to verify news online that seems suspicious. Also: “Forty-seven percent of teens say that Facebook is their preferred social media site for news. Tweens are more likely to split their vote between YouTube (41 percent) and Facebook (37 percent).” (Speaking of YouTube and news, remember BuzzFeed’s recent investigation into YouTube’s role in the spread of fake news.) Jim Steyer, Common Sense Media’s founder and CEO, suggests that schools bring back their current events classes; failing that, there’s always this podcast.

“A choose your own political adventure.” The Washington Post experimented with an article format that lets you click on a belief (in this case, whether you’re sympathetic to Paul Ryan’s position on healthcare or not) to expand and proceed with the article.

Illustration from L.M. Glackens’ The Yellow Press (1910) via The Public Domain Review.

Laura Hazard Owen is the editor of Nieman Lab. You can reach her via email ( or Twitter DM (@laurahazardowen).
POSTED     March 10, 2017, 10:28 a.m.
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