Illustration for article titled Facebook Will Now Tell You Where That Viral Covid-19 Story Came From

Photo: Loic Venance/AFP (Getty Images)

Back in June, Facebook rolled out a new feature that tells its mobile app users if an article they are about to share is more than three months old. While users aren’t prevented from sharing an older article, Facebook said at the time it was an attempt to get people to stop and think about what they were about to share—so hopefully users would actually read the article and analyze if it was from a legitimate source or if it provided the most up-to-date information on a given topic or event.


Now Facebook is going one step further. David Gillis, a designer at Facebook, tweeted that the social media company is changing that notification to include information about the link’s source, when the website was first registered, and when the article was first shared on Facebook. Also, if the post contains any information related to covid-19, there will also be a link to an official covid-19 information page curated by Facebook.


However, if a user shares information from a credible health authority, like the World Health Organization, they will not receive a notification. According to Facebook, this is to “ensure people have access to credible information about covid-19 from global health authorities.”

Listing when a website was first registered is designed to help slow the spread of misinformation, but if someone doesn’t understand the relevance of that registration date, it won’t be so helpful. Domain age is one of several determining factors of a website’s credibility, but without actually reading the text, checking backlinks, and digging into original sources, domain age doesn’t mean much on its own.

What’s more is that some users could confuse the “registered” time frame with the article’s original publication date, or confuse the “first shared” date with the original publication date.

There are plenty of sites that dig up up years-old news stories, rewrite them with little or no attribution or acknowledgement of the original publication date from the original source, and then publish—all for the sake of stirring up controversy. Those stories can go viral on Facebook, and I’m not sure including the source link or the domain age will help prevent the spread.


There are also instances of “news” or “opinion” websites, which also maintain a Facebook page, violating Facebook’s rules about sharing sponsored or paid partnership content. In short, sharing sponsored content must be disclosed to Facebook users and content can only be considered sponsored if a creator is paid to make something to promote a brand, for instance. A news outlet cannot pay another news outlet to share news stories on its Facebook page and call it a “paid partnership.” This recently occurred with the Facebook page Mad World News, which the social network demoted.

What might be helpful in curbing the spread of misinformation online is if whatever algorithm Facebook is using to generate these notifications also scrapes the page to see if it cites an original source, and what that original source is. “This news story originally came from X or Y publication” is something more easily understood and more helpful than domain age, especially if the website reporting on it is a newer but legitimate publication and still has a ways to go to build some clout.


Or, you know, everyone could actually read Facebook’s tip page on how to spot a fake news story, which actually has good strategies on how to properly analyze a news source.