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This Guy Built a Fake News Detector, Then Facebook Blocked It

B.S. Detector plugin warned Facebook users of fake news, but it now appears to have been blocked.

Ben Sullivan

Ben Sullivan

Image: Elvert Barnes/Flickr

Last night, TechCrunch ran a story purporting that Facebook was showing certain users red warning labels above fake news links. But as it happens, this wasn't Facebook's doing at all, but rather the work of a Chrome plugin called B.S. Detector, made by activist and independent journalist Daniel Sieradski.

If that irony wasn't interview-worthy enough, with the backdrop of an ongoing public crisis over Facebook's involvement in fake news, the social network appears to have just actually just banned the plugin, according to Sieradski.

Why have you made B.S. Detector? Is it a response to Facebook's perceived role in the election? Or was something brewing before that?

I am concerned that disinformation is playing an outsized role in shaping our political discourse. You cannot make informed decisions when you are misinformed. That said, I created the B.S. Detector specifically to counter Mark Zuckerberg's fallacious statements that Facebook is unable to adequately address the proliferation of fake news on its platform and to demonstrate just how easy it is.

It's very ironic that TechCrunch thought this was a Facebook feature, don't you think?

It's the meta-est of metas. Fake news about a fake news plugin. You'd think they'd have taken the time to contact someone at Facebook to confirm before running with it.

Can you tell Motherboard how many downloads you've had, how many users?

So far it's had 25,000 installs.

B.S. Detector in action against an InfoWars link. Image: Motherboard

Can you go into how it works? How is the extension deciding what's trustworthy or not? Like, who decides that InfoWars isn't reputable and why should I trust that decision making process? Who's to say that CNN isn't reputable, or Fox News?

The list of domains has been compiled from various sources around the web. Right now, I and the community of open source contributors to this project are working through the list, classifying sites, removing sites that don't belong and adding ones that do. Of course, while the process is open, this isn't the best methodology and so at this time I am reaching out to media watchdog groups that have more concrete methodologies and research to back up their classifications in hopes that we can partner.

The difference between a site like Infowars and Fox News, in my view, is that Infowars publishes headlines about mythical shadowy elites like the Illuminati and the New World Order. You're not going to see a credible news source publish nonsense like that. While Fox may have its biases and at time fudges facts to meet those biases, they have a legitimate news room, with real editors and real reporters. They fuck up sometimes, and sometimes it's rather willful, but it's not just a bunch of dudes sitting in their basements with tin foil hats on. There are some systems of accountability in place for false reportage. The same goes for CNN. They fuck up sometimes, but their overall goal isn't to purposefully mislead the public.

However, the B.S. Detector isn't a censorship tool. It's an opt-in service and does not prevent you from reading fake news, it simply seeks to offer a helpful reminder to folks to keep their wits about them while reading things online, and to not take everything they see as fact. Thus the decisions we make about who to include aren't that consequential. I just want to encourage people to be suspicious by default.

Thinking more broadly about fake news, do you think there's a technological solution or do people have to become more literate? Wouldn't the ultimate technical solution just be to tell people to delete their FB?

Media literacy is incredibly important and something that should be required learning in primary and secondary schools.

How do they plan to develop the extension further (if you do at all)?

I open sourced the project at launch and immediately began receiving contributions from other developers to improve the functionality of the plugin. We've drastically improved performance and functionality over the last couple of weeks, taking it from a proof-of-concept to a functional product, and intend to continue along that trajectory. I would love to offer a mobile solution, but developing it would take resources I don't quite have. I have a 9 to 5 job. Unless someone's going to pay me to work on it full time, it's going to remain a side project.

You've posted a screen grab onto Twitter showing that your plugin has been blocked. Is Facebook behind this?

My guess is because I've publicly embarrassed them.

Motherboard has contacted Facebook to confirm that the social network has indeed banned the extension. We are awaiting a response. In Motherboard's own tests, we were able to see the warning flags on fake news stories but were unable to link to the plugin on Facebook.

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