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Facebook as the ‘Digital World’s Editor-in-chief?’

Is it a good idea to let news consumers crowd source the credibility of news providers, and rank them based on the results?

That is essentially what Facebook has proposed, in response to the manipulated “fake news” and propaganda that are posted by a myriad of questionable sources that take advantage of the social platform’s massive reach.

But are news consumers the best judge of credibility, particularly at a time when the label “fake news” is being applied to anything the reader disagrees with?

New York Times CEO Mark Thompson doesn’t think so. In a speech to the Open Markets Institute Conference in Washington, DC, in early June, Thompson accused Facebook of setting itself up as “the digital world’s editor in chief” by allowing user survey data to determine whether a provider was trusted or not.

“We face an immediate threat here,” he said, “which is that Facebook’s catalogue of missteps with data and extreme-and-hateful content will lead it into a naïve attempt to set itself up as the digital world’s editor-in-chief, prioritising and presumably downgrading and rejecting content on a survey — and data-driven — of whether the provider of the content is ‘broadly trusted’ or not.”

Facebook met with news providers in May to discuss its plans to use consumer input about trusted sources to help determine the reach of news articles on its platform. The plan has drawn criticism and fears that asking consumers to rate sites on credibility will devolve into a subjective exercise in which they give high marks to sites they agree with and denigrate those with which they disagree.

Facebook’s approach appears to assume that news consumers are the best judges of which sites are trustworthy. But this only works if consumers enjoy a high level of media literacy and have the knowledge and ability to access, analyse and evaluate information. There is growing evidence that they do not, and nothing less than a massive media literacy education program is necessary to combat the influence of fake news and propaganda.

“To me, having a media literate society is the essence of having a democratic society and a market-based economy,” says Tessa Jolls, president and CEO of the Center for Media Literacy. “It is the essence of having the ability to both enhance and protect our precious freedoms. It presumes that we, the people, are smart and capable and responsible. It reinforces that expectation that, if we are responsible, others should exercise responsibility, as well. It assumes that learning is a lifelong process that doesn’t just take place through textbooks or in certain demographic areas.”

Being “audience centric” and increasing customer trust is one of the central tenets of the Institute for Media Strategies’ holistic approach to digital transformation. More on the IFMS approach can be found here.

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