Can we reduce "fake news" with anonymous group shaming?
I have many things to discuss on the problem of "fake news" (which is to say, deliberately constructed false reports aimed to be spread to deceive) and the way it spreads through social media. This hot topic, seen as one of the largest threats to democracy to ever arise -- especially when combined with automated microtargeting of political propaganda -- is causing people to clamour for solutions.
Some of the solutions proposed are problematic on their own. Appointing social network sites to be arbiters of what is real and fake. Censorship executed by web sites or the government or both. Rules similar to the "false news" law in Canada that was ruled unconstitutional after it convicted a holocaust denier. (See: R v Zundel)
Here I propose an alternative in the form of semi-anonymous shaming. If we can create consequences for the spreading of fake news, social consequences, we may be able to reduce it. Of course, if your friend online posts some fake news, you may be inclined (as I often am) to call them out on it. This is not typical activity. Most people are afraid of damaging a friendship in this fashion.
Perhaps we can craft a way to call friends out for posting fake news that makes them feel some shame in forwarding it, but which can still be done in friendly society.
At a first level, networks could include a tool so that when you see what you believe to be fake news, you could tag it. Those upstream who forwarded the story could then, after some number of such tags, be told, "5 of your friends want to point out to you that this story is fake." Additional text lines could be offered without attribution.
Social networks love to have people tag other content, though usually positively, and not anonymously. Everybody on Facebook is constantly clicking "Like." All the variations of the Like button, even "Sad" are positive feedback, and all are identified. Some networks allow both upvoting and downvoting. The presence of downvoting is controversial. It is often misused (people downvote things they disagree with, not things they think are poorly written or incorrect) but is usually anonymous. Some proposals exist that upvotes and downvotes would be tallied independently.
I will emphasize again that what is proposed is primarily a method of communication among friends, not to random strangers. Upvoting/reporting systems on public postings are common, but also often gamed. Robots could not easily participate in this unless you friend them.
The use of shame could go further. Ideally we would like a way so that somebody, discovering they have made a mistake, would not be too shamed, because we want them to issue a retraction and pass it down the line. Nobody likes issuing retractions, even large professional news organizations that feel it is their journalistic duty.
A good system could do things to encourage retraction, and in particular to make retraction less embarrassing. For example, if more than one person forwarded the same item of fake news to a given person, that person could simply be informed, "Recently, several of your friends included this story in your feed. Some of them now report they have learned the story was seriously erroneous or even fake. They extend their apologies and wish to make sure you know the story is fake."
I want to duplicate the dynamic of somebody saying, "Sorry, my bad" and others responding "It's cool" so that errors are corrected but friendship is not damaged.
Of course, if you got a fake story from only one person, you will know they issued the apology but even so it will seem less direct and embarrassing than a personal and public retraction.
The social site could also add language to make people feel better about retractions. Throw in lines like, "As you probably know, false stories show up all the time in social feeds, and people decide to retract them thousands of times a day. We hope you appreciate that your contact has had the courage and sense of right to correct this unfortunately common mistake that people make online."
The ultimate goal of course is that people, not wanting to retract or get called out will think a little bit more before posting fake news.
This can also be combined with plans at some social networks to build tools that detect fake news after the fact. If a story has been confirmed, through crowd wisdom or other sources, to be fake news, this can lead to encouragement for retraction by the original poster and forwarders, or encouragement to recipients to investigate and call out the source on their BS.
Naturally, any system like this has a danger. Some will use it on stories that they simply disagree with rather than just stories that are outright deceptions. Experimentation would be needed to figure out the best ways to limit that, or even to allow counter-claims. Of course, since it's just opinion between friends, nothing is harmed if you claim that news you don't agree with or with minor errors is fake news (like Donald Trump often does) unless those reports somehow can cause other things, like flagging articles for review.