Facebook, Keep the Fact-Checkers in Their Place
Facebook has detailed its plan for combating fake news. It will effectively outsource the fact-checking of news stories flagged by users as possibly fake to third-party groups that should, at a minimum, be signatories to a code developed at the Poynter Institute, a Florida-based journalism training organization. But by making a small group of vetters the arbiters of "truth," Facebook undermines its own impartiality and may open the way for censorship on social networks.
Adam Mosseri, Facebook's vice president responsible for the news feed, explained in a post how the scheme will work. Users will be able to flag a fake news story, which Facebook will then send to a group that has signed the International Fact Checking Code of Principles. If the group decides the story is indeed fake, Facebook will mark it "disputed," linking to the fact-checkers explanation. People will still be able to share the stories after reading a warning that they've been disputed, but Facebook "may" push them lower down the news feed and will make them ineligible for paid promotion.
The system will initially be tried in the U.S., where only a handful of organizations -- ABC News, the Associated Press, Climate Feedback, Factcheck.org, PolitiFact, Snopes and The Washington Post Fact Checker -- have signed the code. The Poynter Institute has clarified that it won't easily admit more signatories: The "filtering role" the code will now play requires, the institute said, "a more formal vetting mechanism behind the code of principles."
Facebook's choice of partner immediately cuts off a large swathe of conservative readers. Poynter's International Fact-Checking Network, home to the code of principles, is funded, among other donors, by George Soros's Open Society Foundations -- enough for many of those who repost stories from Breitbart News and more extreme conservative sites to see it as part of a globalist conspiracy.
Nor will these people, or even less rabid conservatives, accept the assessments of, say, PolitiFact as gospel. PolitiFact is the favorite target of conservative bloggers -- there's even a site called PolitiFact Bias, which regularly disputes the fact checkers' work, often making valid points. It recently explained, for example, that checking a Republican description of Trump's electoral college win as a "landslide" makes no sense because "landslide" is a matter of opinion, not fact. The site has also claimed to catch out members of the PolitiFact team in inconsistencies.
Breitbart, too, gets into disputes with PolitiFact. In July, they argued about a fact check of Donald Trump's use of a story from "Clinton Cash," a bestselling book by Peter Schweizer, concerning the sale of a uranium company with mines in the U.S. to a Russian state-owned firm. Schweizer helped Breitbart put together a rebuttal. PolitiFact came out with a point-by-point response, often saying the context provided by Schweizer wasn't relevant to the specific fact check. The back and forth could have continued if Breitbart pointed out any context could be relevant to a complex story.
If Facebook were serious about the robustness of its outsourced fact-checking scheme, it would need to provide links to each part of the dispute under its "disputed story" flag. Would that help readers establish the truth? I know I'd be confused rather than enlightened. How many readers have the time, the depth of interest or, indeed, the reporting skills to dig through the source material and investigate further?
Even leaving the possibility of partisan bias aside, signatories to the Poynter code of principles can sometimes disagree about the veracity of the same statement. In a 2015 paper on fact-checking disputed realities, Morgan Marietta of the University of Massachusetts and his collaborators mention three specific cases of such disagreements. For example, in 2012, Factcheck.org described Senator Dick Durbin's statement that "Social Security does not add one penny to our debt" as false, but The Washington Post Fact Checker rated it "mostly true." In 2013, President Barack Obama said deficits were falling at the fastest rate in 60 years. PolitiFact agreed, but Factcheck.org rated the statement as false.
"When examined from the perspective of the disputed realities of our politics, the fact-checkers do not agree on the questions asked or the answers offered," the researchers wrote, ranking the three major U.S. fact-checking groups -- PolitiFact, Factcheck.org and The Washington Post Fact Checker --"two or three Pinocchios" on The Washington Post's scale, or "half true"/"mostly false." A politically polarized country is not really post-truth; it's just that truth is sometimes complicated and multilayered.
The growing fact-checking community, encouraged by institutions such as Poynter, sprang up as a response to cost cuts in the mainstream media. Many news organizations cannot afford painstaking fact checks; they even eschew copy editors who could weed out typos. Yet the fact checkers are, at the end of the day, only journalists, with their own biases and, professional failings. Their work is, on aggregate, helpful to the journalistic community as a public service replacing the old-fashioned, rigorous attention to detail within news organizations -- but it's not fit to serve as a basis for "downgrading" certain stories and giving a free pass to others. That, however, is exactly how Facebook wants to use them.
The "disputed" flags are not particularly worrying. Some right-wing news sources would probably wear it as a badge of honor, and their readers would agree -- though some news junkie readers might become interested in the broader context provided by fact-checkers. It's nice to see a story and its critique side by side. But if Facebook really downgrades "disputed" content and makes it impossible to promote, that would curb the distribution of some legitimate stories. And even the fake ones may have some value. As someone who follows Russia, I must see which stories from Kremlin propaganda sites people in Europe and the U.S. share and discuss. The new Facebook policy may make this harder because the links will be pushed lower in my news feed.
Facebook is under pressure to do something about fake news; the International Fact Checking Network, defeated U.S. Democrats and European politicians facing their own showdowns soon are all up in arms about misleading stories. The new procedure, if applied consistently, will probably get the critics off Zuckerberg's back. They will, however, devalue Facebook as an omnivorous, impartial news distribution platform, chase some readers deeper into their silos and send others hunting for other ways to receive content from a wide variety of sources. Twitter appears to be a good alternative until it bends to pressure as Facebook has done.
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.
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