By Facebook Press
Reducing the amount of false news on Facebook is always important, critically so during times of heightened civic discourse, such as the lead-up to major elections. That’s why limiting the spread of misinformation has been a key pillar in our investments around election integrity.
As a company, when it comes to misinformation, we prioritize reducing the harm it causes and often look at its impacts in the aggregate. However, we can learn a lot about trends and nuances by examining specific cases and how they spread. In this second edition of “The Hunt for False News,” we travel to the EU, ahead of May’s parliamentary elections, to take a deeper look at some examples of misinformation that circulated there recently.
What we saw In January, a photo of a letter supposedly written by the headmistress of a Dresden primary school was posted to Facebook. The letter announces that in the following week, four imams would be visiting the school to introduce the children to the Koran and Islam.
This “theme week” would include a compulsory visit to a mosque, and parents were encouraged to buy a Koran and avoid giving their children pork for breakfast on the day of the imams’ visit. The letter closed by saying that the school was pleased to be bringing parents and children closer to Islam, as it is an important topic in Germany.
Was it true? No. German fact-checker Correctiv used image editing software to take a closer look at the letterhead, which had been blacked out in the photo. By increasing the contrast and brightness, they show that the blacked-out section was not, in fact, a school address, but a nonsense string of letters. Correctiv also notes that the letter circulated on various social networks, and when a Twitter user asked various German officials for comment on the photo, the Saxon Ministry of Education tweeted back that the letter was a fake.
What to know False news often gains traction when it feeds off of hot-button political and social issues — in this case, the growing population of Muslims in Germany. As we noted in an example about migrants and refugees in the last edition of “The Hunt for False News,” content that disparages or stirs up distrust of distinct groups of people, as this letter does, is another key trend in misinformation.
A few months ago, we expanded our fact-checking efforts to include photos, like this one, and videos. This fake letter falls into the “manipulated or fabricated” category of photo and video misinformation. (The other two major categories are out-of-context media or media with false audio or text claims.) In general, we see that photos and videos make up a greater share of fact-checked posts than article links do. In fact, in the lead-up to the US midterm elections, photos and videos made up two thirds of fact-checker ratings in the U.S.
How we caught it There are two primary ways we find stories that are likely to be false: either we use machine learning to detect potentially false stories on Facebook, or else they’re identified by our third-party fact-checkers themselves. Once a potentially false story has been found — regardless of how it was identified — fact-checkers review the claims in the story, rate their accuracy and provide an explanation as to how they arrived at their rating. This photo was identified via machine learning.
What we saw An article from a now defunct Dutch site citing 11 reasons to avoid getting a flu shot — including a claim that the flu shot can cause Alzheimer’s — was shared to Facebook in December 2018. The article cited research by Dr. Hugh Fudenburg supposedly showing that people who regularly have a flu shot are 10 times more likely to develop Alzheimer’s. The article link was caught early; it had only been shared about 23 times before it was fact-checked.
Was it true? Our fact-checking partner Nu.nl declared that one of the claims in the story — that the flu shot increases the risk of Alzheimer’s — was very unlikely and gave the overall article a “mixture” rating on this basis.
Nu.nl noted that there is no published research showing the flu vaccine impacts your chance of getting Alzheimer’s; Fudenberg is reported to have spoken about research linking flu shots and the disease at a 1997 conference, but those findings have never been published and there are no supporting scientific theories that make it plausible the flu shot would affect one’s chance of getting Alzheimer’s. Further, while it has been claimed that aluminum and mercury in flu vaccines lead to the disease, Nu.nl reports that neither substance is found in Dutch flu shots.
What to know While we’ve been working with fact-checkers to rate articles across a range of topics, we also recently announced that we’re taking additional actions to reduce the spread of vaccine hoaxes verified as false by global health organizations, because the spread of health misinformation online can have dangerous consequences offline. We will also be informing people with authoritative information on the topic. (Learn more about our “remove, reduce, inform” framework for cleaning up your News Feed.)
How we caught it This one was identified via machine learning. Nu.nl matched the claim about the flu vaccine and Alzheimer’s to an article they’d written on the topic in late October, which led to our downranking this Dutch article in News Feed and showing Nu.nl’s debunking article alongside it in Related Articles.
What we saw In January 2018, a Twitter account purporting to belong to Ebba Busch Thor, leader of the Swedish Christian Democrats or Kristdemokraterna (KD), tweeted disapprovingly of those who criticize the Swedish pension system.
The post alluded to people’s concern for poor pensioners, saying that in Sweden people get the pension they deserve and that the undesirable alternative would be socialism. The account, @EbbaBuschThorKD, was revealed to be a fake and shut down, but screenshots of the tweet continued to circulate. The screenshot was shared to Facebook in January 2018 by a Page called Nej till EU-Skatt (“No to EU Tax”) and the post began recirculating in January 2019.
Was it true? No — as our fact-checking partner Viralgranskaren (Viral Examiner) noted in their article debunking the screenshot, @EbbaBuschThorKD was a fake Twitter account that has since been shut down.
What to know False news can have a long shelf life when its subjects remain in the spotlight.
Even though this screenshot first surfaced in 2018, it saw another spike a full year later, during amonths-long government deadlock following parliamentary elections in September 2018. As we noted above, another major trend in misinformation is content that disparages distinct groups of people — in this case, low-income people.
Though this particular ruse started on Twitter, fake accounts are a major vector of misinformation on Facebook, too. Blocking fake accounts is one of the most impactful steps in our fight to curb false news. In the third quarter of 2018 — the time period covered by our most recent Community Standards Enforcement Report — we disabled 754 million fake accounts, having found 99.6% of them before users reported them.
How we caught it This image was detected via machine learning. Viralgranskaren investigated it and submitted a “false” rating and an explainer article, which led us to reduce its distribution in News Feed and show the Viralgranskaren debunk in Related Articles.
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