Why Facebook’s most important job is some long overdue housekeeping

Last year Facebook disabled the use of ad blocking software.  This meant that the big question was whether Facebook was still a viable social network, bringing people closer together or a multi-million-dollar advertising platform. The answer may be a muddy mixture of both.

Rather than being able to login and enjoy the photos and updates from friends, family and like-minded individuals, in a serene ad-free environment, you instead have to apply a mental filter to ignore an ad for your favourites club’s Ibiza foam party, next to photos of your mum’s trip to Torquay with aunt Jemima.

This really isn’t the real issue for Facebook. Yes, ads are annoying but we’re willing to tolerate them because we’re so used to our data being harvested that we don’t even notice, and ads have been part of all our lives since the BBC started facing competition from channels that weren’t funded by the licence fee.

What is a problem, is when ads are used to disseminate misinformation. The interesting thing here is that many of the ads from recognisable brands are relatively easy to ignore. But when it’s from an entity which is affiliated to a political party or has a divisive view of a political argument, it is a lot harder to overlook.

Brands tend to be very safe, for fear of offending potential consumers. Political activists have no such inhibition, as their landscape is already clearly divided. Currently it’s the case that the more you lean to one side of the political spectrum over the other, the more attention your opinion is given.

So, now you’re able to gain attention, on one of the world’s biggest advertising platforms, but the problem is further exacerbated by the fact that you don’t need to have any basis in fact.

Well now, Facebook wants to change that. Tired of being slated for the role his company had in distributing alternative facts during the 2016 US presidential election (he’s probably less aware of the EU referendum), Mark Zuckerberg has extended a ban which previously only disallowed advertisers from promoting stories deemed false by third-party fact checking organisations. Now, it also covers the publishers themselves, who will now no longer be able to monetise these false stories. Going forward, Facebook plans to refuse to allow repeat offenders, using Facebook Pages, to buy ads at all.

“If Pages repeatedly share stories marked as false, these repeat offenders will no longer be allowed to advertise on Facebook,” said product managers Satwik Shukla and Tessa Lyons.

While these Facebook product managers recognise that the spread of fake news is harmful, what they haven’t said is that if this was allowed to become the norm, then the audience would ultimately stop trusting what they saw on the platform, making it a pretty bad place for any brand to advertise.

If advertisers decide they don’t want to spend their money with Facebook, because it reflects badly on their brand’s credibility by sitting alongside fake news, then Facebook will quite quickly have a financial problem.

This of course is a worst-case scenario and Facebook have moved to avoid this from ever being the case. But no doubt Zuckerberg will sleep a little easier when the wider media stop citing Facebook as a major reason for the placing of the current White House administration.

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