Jeremy Johnson
customer experience leader


Ideas, thoughts & insights.

How UX can save us from fake news

Over the last month or so, as fake news stories started showing up everywhere, my first thoughts were facebook should fund and create a non-profit organization that has the skills of a politifact and snopes. A group that once something was shared on facebook enough would get queued up for fact checking. Why would facebook want to to this? They’re in a tough spot between being called to help stop this epidemic (even a nuclear war?), but not upsetting their users, who in some cases want to believe these stories are true. So they need to be impartial and transparent. And they’re working on this:

“If the fact checking organizations identify a story as fake, it will get flagged as disputed and there will be a link to the corresponding article explaining why. Stories that have been disputed may also appear lower in News Feed.” — facebook

Some of this is starting to happen today. It’s not just the fact checking, but the user experience design that is an important part of a holistic solution. Identifying the news, and then signifying visually is it (as snopes puts it) true, mostly true, mostly false, false or unproven.

Where the redesign of a pill bottle can help people with something as important as their medication with just better product design and visual communication, the same principles of understanding, empathy, clear labeling, and strong visual design can be used to identify fake news.

Here’s facebook’s first take:

And they’re not the only ones, others are already working on this by releasing 3rd party tools and plugins:

But, really the facebook design team, which is super talented, should take this challenge on and expand on solution.

For a purely analytical thinker, just seeing a notation would set you down a path exploring the sources that prove or disprove something, but I’ve talked to too many people that think either facts don’t exist, or that every group is biased.

Everybody has a way of interpreting them to be the truth, or not truth. There’s no such thing, unfortunately, anymore as facts. — Scottie Nell Hughes

Here’s what I’d do.

I’d start with a soft opt-in. Facebook is great at notifying you when new features are available, why not start with a friendly “You read a lot of news, how would you like to opt into a new program that lets you see if a new story is true, false, or something in-between?”

Once opted into the program, you would show the status of each news post that has been checked, not that dissimilar to what’s shown on facebook’s video, but with some added enhancements:

Identifying that the story has been checked, if it’s true, how many sources are used to verify, and how many people are sharing this story. This could be expanded to include scoring for the different news organizations — ones that are known to be more false than others.

One design principle would be to be as transparent as possible, over explaining at every turn. For the first couple of stories you could have it expanded by default, then the UI can adapt to over time to take up less room, but still convey the same information.

While I like the snopes rating system, there could be a softer way to denote something other than “fake”. While I believe many people are more than happy to spread a story that fits their viewpoint, usually when asked one common theme you hear is that “Hey, it’s only a joke”.

Miller argues that many of the stories were satirical in nature and intended for readers to draw their own conclusions. “It’s like Fox News. I report, you decide if it’s true or not,” Miller said. — Sid Miller, Texas Agriculture Commissioner

So maybe instead of “fake” can it be “satire” or “For Entertainment Only”. I’ve seen sites listed as “propaganda” — but to the average person, that sounds like something out of a WWII spy movie, not something your Aunt Sally shared on facebook the other day. Which again shows the the cognitive dissonance people have when they love their Aunt Sally, and regard her as a thoughtful person, but she’s sharing, and agreeing with propaganda?!?

Visual design and User Experience can be used as a powerful force to give people quick indications of the quality of what they’re reading and sharing. And while these could quickly help, I’m sure a good qualitative study outside of any metropolitan area would reveal a number of insights into the “why” this is happening that would feed an overall better design.

This is a tricky subject. People want to believe what they see, in these cases breaking the illusion is hard, and the source of the checking needs to be transparent and trustworthy. It’s in the best interest of facebook to make sure they get it right and keep the trust of their users. Why? Use money as a reason if you need to — if they lose trust, they lose users, something they need to run their business.

There are ways to solve these problems, and design can be a big part of that solution.

I’ll leave you with the famous words of a fictitious FBI Agent who spends most of his time looking for aliens “The truth is out there”.

Jeremy JohnsonComment