Okay Facebook, tell us who you think is trustworthy

By Yair Oded

Updated May 16, 2020 at 10:08 AM

Reading time: 2 minutes

In an effort to combat cyclones of misinformation and fake news raging across its platform, Facebook has recently taken to assigning credibility scores to their users. According to Tessa Lyons, Facebook’s product manager in charge of targeting and eliminating misinformation, the new campaign consists of algorithms programmed to assess how likely a person is to spread fake news and how credible their flagging of misinformation is. In short, their new mission is to “identify malicious users.” But Facebook’s crusade against evildoers on the web raises a bunch of other concerns regarding how the data is collected, how precisely it will be utilised, and—most importantly—the legitimacy of their authority to determine what constitutes “trustworthy” activity.

On their part, Facebook insists that the new scoring method is a highly credible and efficient way to thwart the spreading of fake news on their platform. It replaced a 2015 attempt to tackle misinformation, which allowed users to flag content they believe is suspicious or downright false. Alas, according to Lyons, users often reported content simply because they disagreed with the author’s argument or political affiliation, or when they were personally offended. In order to surpass that problem, Facebook fashioned the sophisticated, algorithm-based method of scoring users in order to screen content reporting and alleviate the pressure from fact-checkers. Lyons insists that the scoring system doesn’t produce an overall score for their users’ reputation and trustworthiness, but rather relies on thousands of factors to identify particular behavioural patterns that are often associated with either spreading misinformation or wrongly flagging content as fake.

Yet, very little is known about what factors and behavioural clues Facebook is considering while assessing a user’s trustworthiness, or what measurements it uses in order to construct a person’s credibility profile. What if, for instance, one once opened a fake account to stalk their ex (an arguably desperate and creepy act that many of us are culpable of, but not necessarily ‘malicious’)? Is their score going to take a nosedive? If so, are a broken heart or lover-withdrawal symptoms any indication of a person’s likelihood to spread fake news or flag content as such for no reason other than they don’t agree with it? It has also been reported that while assessing a user’s trustworthiness, Twitter often looks at the behaviour patterns of other people in their network. In the unimaginable event that Facebook utilises similar tactics, can the actions of one’s boss or classmate or a total rando on their friends’ list affect their score?

One can contemplate countless other potential issues with Facebook’s scoring method. For instance, what assurance do we have that they are not in fact in the process of constructing an overall, comprehensive ‘trustworthiness’ profile of their users? Simply because they told us so? (lol!) And what will become of this data should it end up in the wrong hands or be sold to a third party (such as governments or greedy conglomerates that are ravenous for such delicious information)? In what manner will it be utilised?

Unfortunately, our experience with Facebook and its tech siblings shows us that we simply don’t know what occurs behind closed doors and that we have no real way of monitoring or making a well-informed criticism of its actions and objectives until it’s too late.

But the problem, in this case, runs far deeper than that. Perhaps it all boils down to the agency we entrust to such platforms to determine what is ‘trustworthy’. Perhaps we are too quick to believe that companies that are ultimately motivated by their own interests (which often contrast those of the public) are legitimate judges when it comes to the assessment of credibility and morality… and character.

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