December 1, 2017

Editor's note: This article has been updated with the latest figure for Snapchat's daily active users, as well as additional context from the company.

Snapchat really wants people to know why they’re not Facebook — without naming them, of course.

In an op-ed published in Axios on Wednesday, Evan Spiegel, CEO and co-founder of Snap, Inc., criticized social media networks’ role in disseminating fake news online. Without mentioning Facebook or Twitter, he chastised platforms that rely on “using friends to curate a content feed.”

“Content designed to be shared by friends is not necessarily content designed to deliver accurate information,” Spiegel said in the op-ed.

That might seem like a veiled shot at two of the largest social media platforms, whose struggles with fake news are well-documented. But Snapchat’s latest app update this week seems to back up Spiegel’s comments, while also reinforcing the platform’s own structural barriers that have largely guarded it from becoming a hotbed of misinformation.

The update, which Snap announced in detail on Wednesday, features a redesign of the app to “separate social from media,” as Spiegel put it. Accessible on the left via swipe is a new dynamic page where users can access their snaps and stories from friends, while news and content from publishers live in the Discover tab on the right-hand side. Those stories are displayed algorithmically, just like on Facebook and Twitter, with one big exception — human editors at Snapchat curate and moderate what gets promoted.

A spokesperson for Snap told Poynter that’s one big reason the company hasn’t had any issues with misinformation to date. And while it’s hard for those outside the company to monitor the scope of misinformation on a platform that consists mostly of peer-to-peer interactions, fact-checkers have also found Snapchat to be insulated from misinformation.

Five fact-checking organizations around the world told Poynter they’ve never seen fake news on the platform, which has about 178 million daily users. That stands in stark contrast to social media sites like Facebook and Twitter, which recently testified in front of Congress on the role of misinformation during the 2016 election.

Katie Sanders, deputy editor of PolitiFact (a project of the Poynter-owned Tampa Bay Times) said that, aside from what Snap itself does to prevent misinformation, from an audience perspective she’s seen one big reason for why misinformation hasn’t been a big issue on Snapchat.

“I don’t think it’s regarded as a news source,” she said. “You wouldn’t go to Snapchat necessarily to get the latest on the Las Vegas shooting. I think people probably use Snapchat differently.”

That perceptive difference, along with the fact that there’s no real mechanism for virality on Snapchat, could disincentivize fake news purveyors from targeting users on the platform. And it’s not just Americans who view Snapchat differently than Facebook or Twitter — in the United Kingdom, it’s the same deal, and fact-checkers have adjusted accordingly.

“We don't have the resources to monitor every social media platform, so we stick to the ones where people get their news,” said Phoebe Arnold, head of communications and impact for the British fact-checking charity Full Fact, in an email to Poynter. “Snapchat doesn't seem to be a major channel for news consumers in the U.K. — the biggest social media platform for news is Facebook.”

In an email to Poynter, Snapchat pushed back against that notion, saying news content is a growing priority for the company. The platform has doubled its average news stories over the past year, which a spokesperson said get millions of unique views, while the news outlets it partners with — such as The New York Times and CNN — are increasingly using the Discover platform to produce daily news shows and stories. The spokesperson also cited a study from the Pew Research Center that found the proportion of Snapchat users who use the platform for news has grown from 17 percent to 29 percent over the last year.

With the new Snapchat update, which is being rolled out to users slowly over the next few weeks, media and personal content isn’t blended together like it is on platforms like Facebook and Twitter — it’s physically separated. That isn’t dissimilar to what Facebook tried in October, when it tested a change in six countries that would silo publishers into a separate news feed unless they paid extra, yet the tech giant received criticism for the test.

The difference is that Snapchat has separated media and user content since the beginning, a concept that it seems to be recommitting to with its latest update.

“Snapchat has always had a much more traditional approach to publishers,” said Emily Bell,  founding director of the Tow Center for Digital Journalism at Columbia University's Graduate School of Journalism, in an email to Poynter. “It seems a small step they are taking but it consolidates a growing movement on all platforms to more clearly delineate professional media from everything else. That trend is only going to increase.”

And the reason why is baked into Snapchat’s DNA.

The Snap spokesperson told Poynter that since the social media platform was conceived as a peer-to-peer ephemeral messaging service, it isn’t designed to allow anyone to broadcast to a big audience without approval. People have to add friends manually, can’t include links in their snaps and can only add 16 people to a group — all of which limit their potential reach. Quartz reported the average Snapchat user only has 30 friends on the platform, as opposed to hundreds on Facebook.

At the same time, perhaps the most significant factor separating Snapchat from its peers is staffing structure. Human moderators sift through every submission to its location-based stories, which have become a definitive place to get a real-time, from-the-scene glimpse at major news events. At the same time, the Snap spokesperson said there’s a team at the company’s headquarters that operates in much the same way a traditional newsroom does, with desks like news, sports and entertainment that curate and verify content as it’s posted.

Then there’s the question of Snapchat’s sheer user size.

“Snapchat is still a relatively small place compared with Facebook,” said Angie Holan, editor of PolitiFact, “and I think that’s why the fake news makers (don’t use it).”

While Snapchat’s yearly growth in daily users outpaced Facebook in Q2 2017, the latter still has over 1 billion users more than the former (both have more daily users than Twitter). On the other hand, less public platforms — such as the popular private messaging apps WhatsApp — have billions of users around the world and have become breeding grounds for misinformation. Fake news peddlers just aren’t able to reach as many people on Snapchat.

Those metrics, as well as the vetting process and the fact that only news organizations approved by Snapchat can join the Discover tab, create significant barriers and disincentives for fake news to infiltrate the platform. And these days, that’s pretty unique.

While Snapchat verifies everything that users submit to its Discover platform, Facebook nixed human editors for trending news last year in favor of robots — a decision that resulted in hoaxes going viral after only two days. Facebook, along with Twitter and Google, have since developed several initiatives to combat the spread of misinformation on their platforms, but Snapchat largely stands alone in avoiding fake news altogether.

Of course, just because there isn’t widespread misinformation on Snapchat now doesn’t mean there never will be. Given the restrictions on the Discover page, the only apparent way for a user to spread misinformation would be if they had a major following.

Basically, unless someone like Kim Kardashian starts sharing fake news, you probably won’t see it. But even then, the Snap spokesperson said that — if a public figure’s snap violated the company’s community guidelines — they’d either ask them to delete it or take it down themselves.

“Who would have thought we would be living in a world where Snapchat is our only legitimate source of news?” Trevor Noah joked on The Daily Show in October. He may have a point.

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Daniel Funke is a staff writer covering online misinformation for PolitiFact. He previously reported for Poynter as a fact-checking reporter and a Google News Lab…
Daniel Funke

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