Facebook, Fake News, and Their Effect on Restaurants

Fake news and restaurants aren't a common pairing on the menu, but could Facebook affect the restaurant industry through much more than advertising and consumer audience generation? While Facebook has been an immense tool in promoting businesses and bringing hungry guests through the doors, could this social media stronghold have a too much power? Can it potentially be harmful? 

New York Times tech columnist Farhad Manjoo presented the idea of "the dangerous side of the social revolution" in his piece "Can Facebook Fix Its Own Worst Bug?" And what is this bug? Not a technical code that needs tweaking — it's the platform's dominating influence. Today, Facebook "has become the largest and most influential entity in the news business, commanding an audience greater than that of any American or European television news network, any newspaper or magazine in the Western world and any online news outlet."

This success has also become its greatest hindrance. When Facebook began, it didn't consider news in its domain, however, this social platform quickly replaced television as a major source of information and it possesses the ability to quickly rally and incite thousands into political action and protest.

"But over the course of 2016, Facebook’s gargantuan influence became its biggest liability. During the U.S. election, propagandists — some working for money, others for potentially state-sponsored lulz — used the service to turn fake stories into viral sensations, like the one about Pope Francis’ endorsing Trump (he hadn’t)," Manjoo wrote.

So, fake news. While part of a larger puzzle, we see the impact of the fake news' virality in the restaurant and hospitality industry itself.

Fake News in the Restaurant Space

Yes, we've seen Facebook fakes, like the time someone used a local woman's photo to create a fake Facebook profile and boycott a neighborhood restaurant, and yes, there was that time where someone created a string of fake Facebook restaurant pages across Houston to aggravate guests, but false information has been taken a step further in the restaurant business.

Do you remember when fake news opened the gates of hell with "Pizza Gate"? December last year, a suspect burst into a D.C. pizzeria called Comet Ping Pong, all while slinging a rifle. Why? Because of an online conspiracy. Pizza Gate, an election-related theory, branded Comet Ping Pong and its owner as accomplices in a child sex operation.

Even before Election Day, Comet Ping Pong and its staff were threatened as the fake news reports continued to proliferate. Although the owner denied these charges passionately, the news continued to spread. The suspect pointed his gun at an employee, who was able to escape and contact the police. All other guests fled as the suspect started shooting. 

"What happened today demonstrates that promoting false and reckless conspiracy theories comes with consequences. I hope that those involved in fanning these flames will take a moment to contemplate what happened here today, and stop promoting these falsehoods right away," owner James Alefantis said to CNN.

That wasn't the only restaurant that fell victim to fake news and Pizza Gate. Famous Brooklyn restaurant Roberta's got caught in the hoax, as well. This favorite, local haunt was suddenly haunted with threats, one person even calling the pizzeria and promising a worker that she was "going to bleed and be tortured." False information doesn't simply hurt business, but because of fake news, and the abundant sharing of these fake news, lives are put at risk.

What Facebook Is Doing to Attack Fake News

As Facebook news feeds often crowd out other news sources, especially when they are customized to users' personal views, it is apparent how this is a dangerous vat for fake news to be spread. To combat this, Facebook announced plans for the Facebook Journalism Project earlier in January, which was formed to build stronger ties between the news industry and the social media platform, and in order to collaborate on new products.

Manjoo also reported that the company created a project to promote "news literacy" among its users and hired former CNN news anchor Campbell Brown to manage the partnership with news companies.

“I think it’s really important to get to the core of the actual problem,” Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg said to the New York Times. “I also really think that the core social thing that needs to happen is that a common understanding needs to exist. And misinformation I view as one of the things that can possibly erode common understanding. But sensationalism and polarization and other things, I actually think, are probably even stronger and more prolific effects. And we have to work on all these things. I think we need to listen to all the feedback on this.”

In addition to its projects, Facebook is now testing related articles with less fake news in order to help people be more informed. These articles aim to provide a broader view, additional perspectives, and more information, complete with third-party fact-checkers. Will this movement be enough to help consumers become more informed? Will this system truly be able to determine fake news from researched stories? And will this limit the impact of fake news across all industries, including restaurant and hospitality? There are still ways to go, but these actions seem to be a step in the right direction.