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October 21, 2014
Thursday, August 21, 2014

Facebook ‘satire’ tag will alert readers to gag news, hoaxes

By Caitlin Dewey
The Washington Post (*)

In a move that could permanently cripple the Internet’s unchecked hoax industry — and ruin at least a couple of decent punch lines — Facebook this week announced that it’s experimenting with a tag that will mark sites such as The Onion, Clickhole and Empire News as satire and, hopefully, alert the millions of gullible people who share these sites as truth each week.

The tag is still a “small test,” Facebook told The Washington Post, and isn’t terribly visible on the site. You’ll see it only in Facebook’s related-links box, which appears once you’ve clicked a shared link, gone off-site and then returned to Facebook.

Whenever that related-links box turns up a story from, say, The Onion, it will automatically mark that story with a “(Satire)” tag in the story’s headline. It’s unclear exactly how many sites are affected or how many users are seeing the tag now — Facebook declined to elaborate — but a test showed (Satire) tags on articles from not only the Onion and its little brother, Clickhole, but also Empire News, National Report, the News Nerd and the Daily Currant.

Those sites deal less in legitimate satire than in viral hoaxes.

And as fake-news sites proliferate, it’s become more difficult for users to weed them out. A top post on Empire News will frequently boast more than a quarter of a million Facebook shares, far more than on any other social platform. As that information spreads and mutates, it gradually takes on the pall of truth.

Facebook has essentially just proffered its own quick fix: if you don’t want people to fall for fake news, clearly mark it — and on the platform where people encounter fake news most.

“We received feedback that people wanted a clearer way to distinguish satirical articles from others (i.e., real articles) in these related news units,” a Facebook spokesperson said.

This isn’t a panacea either, of course. For one thing, Facebook’s auto-tag feature predictably miscategorizes a number of fake-news sites, potentially lending them credibility they do not in any way deserve. It also doesn’t help that the satire markers are confined to the related-links box, which isn’t particularly visible. It’s certainly less obvious than, say, an Empire News post on your wall or in your News feed.

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