The latest example revolves around a protest over the Dakota Access pipeline, a controversial project spanning several states that some fear will endanger the environment. The Justice Department this week granted an injunction if favor of a tribal group in North Dakota that wants to stop the oil pipeline, and this week opponents got a public relations boost on Facebook.
On Thursday, Arkansas resident Tyler Eldridge posted an image suggesting the media had suppressed the scale of the protest, and urged social media users to share the photo. Here’s a screenshot of what he posted on Facebook (I added the arrow):
The photo is a fake, of course. It is not present day North Dakota, but a picture of the Woodstock music festival from 1969.
Even though the image is clearly a hoax, that hasn’t stopped people from sharing it widely. As Buzzfeed noted, the story has already been shared by more than 350,000 people—meaning it’s likely been viewed by many tens of millions (it definitely turned up in my feed).
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Mr. Eldgeridge, meanwhile, appears to be enjoying the prank, and decided to troll everyone a bit more by claiming the media is trying to silence him:
Why is he doing this? It doesn’t really matter. The bigger issue is whether Facebook should do anything to stop this sort of viral mischief.
On one hand, you could argue people should be able to post what they want, and that Facebook users can decide what’s real and what’s not. But on the other, fake news is bad for public debate and for democracy since it fuels misinformation and distrust in the media.
Facebook, for its part, appears to be acknowledging this. Its decision last week to join the First Draft Coalition, a group of a media companies that want to combat fake news, came after the social network included a crackpot conspiracy article among its “Trending Stories” list about 9/11.
Its unclear how far Facebook’s efforts will go. After the foul-up over the 9/11 story, Facebook said it would do more to review how trending news articles are selected. This may not apply, however, to situations like the pipeline hoax since those are not technically news stories, and so would not appear in the “trending” section.
But Facebook should try to crack down on the likes of Mr. Eldridge all the same, especially as one of the coalitions’ aims is to improve news literacy in general. Some sort of hoax warning might do the trick.
Facebook did not reply to a request for comment.