Facebook Fake News Fight Moves to U.K. Elections -- Update

By Stu Woo and Jenny Gross Features Dow Jones Newswires

The fight over fake news is moving to Britain.

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Facebook Inc., criticized for not doing enough to curb misinformation during last year's U.S. presidential race, is trying to show it is making a more-concerted effort in the U.K. ahead of next month's general election.

The social network on Monday ran advertisements in major British newspapers that offer tips for spotting false news stories. It also said it was working with third-party fact checkers to address misinformation, and that it recently removed tens of thousands of fraudulent Facebook accounts in the U.K. after improving ways to identify them.

Prime Minister Theresa May has called a general election for June 8, an opportunity -- if current polling bears out -- to increase the thin majority her Conservative party holds as it enters tough negotiations over the terms of its break up with the European Union.

With a series of Europe's most populous countries holding key elections this year, Facebook and Alphabet Inc.'s Google have tried new tools across the continent to stem false news. Google has previously said it implemented fact-checking tools in the U.K. and France, where Emmanuel Macron won the presidential vote Sunday. Google is also rolling out the tools in Germany, which holds parliamentary elections in September.

Facebook, meanwhile, had previously started rolling out in several countries a tool that marks stories as "disputed" and shows them less frequently on users' news feeds on Facebook when media organizations deem them false. Monday's moves in the U.K. take those efforts a step further ahead of the June vote.

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Facebook ran newspaper ads titled "Tips for spotting false news." Among the 10 suggestions: look closely at the web address, check whether photos were manipulated, inspect the article's date, make sure the story isn't satire and be skeptical of headlines.

"If shocking claims in the headline sound unbelievable, they probably are," says the ad, which took up a full page in newspapers including the Daily Telegraph, the Times of London and the Guardian. Facebook said its U.K. users would see similar suggestions on its site and that it would announce more details about its plan to tackle misinformation during the U.K. election.

"People want to see accurate information on Facebook and so do we," Simon Milner, Facebook's U.K. policy director, said in a statement Monday.

The moves represent the latest shift for Silicon Valley firms, which previously portrayed themselves as neutral technology platforms that should have no role in moderating the internet. That attitude changed after last year's divisive U.S. presidential election. Lawmakers and others criticized tech giants for election-news related hoaxes and misinformation that made it onto their sites.

In Britain, blatantly false online stories haven't garnered much attention during recent elections -- and there have been plenty of big ones of late. In the most consequential of recent years, Britons voted last June to exit from the EU in a nationwide referendum.

Conservative former Prime Minister David Cameron swept the last general election in 2015, after committing to hold the EU referendum. He then campaigned against Brexit and stepped down shortly after the June vote. In 2014, Scotland held a referendum on seeking independence from Britain, which fell short.

Measures like the ones Facebook are implementing here haven't provided a panacea, especially for misinformation spread on less-regulated websites. Last week, French prosecutors opened an investigation into a suspected attempt to smear Mr. Macron, after files anonymously posted on 4chan.org suggested he had created a shell company on the Caribbean island of Nevis. Mr. Macron denied that, and officials there said they had no record of any such entity.

Damian Collins, a Conservative lawmaker from southeast England, welcomed Facebook's move. "Education is key, but is no silver bullet," Mr. Collins said in a statement from his Twitter account.

But skeptics of Facebook remain. "It seems to be they're trying to reassure politicians that they don't need to take any kind of action," said Steven Barnett, professor of communications at the University of Westminster.

A spokeswoman for the Labour Party, Britain's main opposition party, declined to comment. A spokeswoman from the Electoral Commission, an independent body that oversees U.K. elections, declined to comment.

Write to Stu Woo at Stu.Woo@wsj.com and Jenny Gross at jenny.gross@wsj.com

(END) Dow Jones Newswires

May 08, 2017 14:08 ET (18:08 GMT)