Facebook wants to battle misinformation with a virality circuit breaker

Facebook is removing anti-quarantine protest pages.
Image: Cody DeBos / The Burn-In

It’s no secret that Facebook is a hotbed for misinformation. It’s all-too-easy to share inaccurate stories—whether intentionally or not—to a network of followers. With the presidential election just months away and the COVID-19 pandemic showing no signs of ceasing, Facebook is looking for new ways to combat misinformation.

It describes its latest approach as a sort of “virality circuit breaker” that slows the spread of harmful content until moderators are able to review it. The feature could drastically cut down on the amount of user-shared misinformation on the platform.

Taking a Known Approach

Circuit breakers play an important role in our highly electrified world. They help prevent damage to sensitive electronics and wiring by cutting off an electrical current before it gets too powerful. That’s the idea behind Facebook’s virality circuit breaker.

The feature automatically stops algorithms from amplifying a post when there is a rapid uptick in views in shares. Normally, this is the whole point of social media. However, just as a hilarious tweet can spread like wildfire, so can a dangerously misleading article about something like COVID-19.

Theoretically, automatically stopping those posts from being amplified gives human moderators enough time to review them. If a post is deemed innocent, it can continue trending as usual. If not, it will be stopped in its tracks before it is able to spread to more people.

The approach has been touted by the Center for American Progress (CAP), which specifically recommended it to Facebook. It suggested that the social media firm’s in-house team review viral content rather than relying on algorithms to sort things out.

Facebook is currently piloting a feature that uses the virality circuit breaker principle. The social media giant reportedly plans to roll it out soon. Exactly when that will occur remains unknown. Likewise, it isn’t clear how the virality circuit breaker will affect the Facebook user experience.

Exposing Weaknesses

The COVID-19 pandemic has unfortunately highlighted some of Facebook’s weak points. Misinformation about the coronavirus has run rampant across the platform over the past several months. Even prior to COVID-19, Facebook was struggling in this area.

Last year, health misinformation networks generated an estimated 3.8 billion views on the platform. A report by Avaaz found that Facebook’s algorithms are largely to blame for that problem.

So far during the pandemic, Facebook moderators have already removed seven million posts for COVID-19 misinformation. The firm also labeled another 98 million posts as false but didn’t actually remove them. That’s a staggering number. It’s interesting to imagine how much lower it would be with a virality circuit breaker in place.

The feature can’t come soon enough. There is no end to digital misinformation in sight. However, a tool like the one Facebook is reportedly working on could certainly help slow it down.


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