Scrolling through your Facebook feed, it can feel like there’s no end to the fake news epidemic. A misquoted former president here, a meme refuting climate change there. Often, it seems the only way to stop misinformation from infiltrating your newsfeed is to cull your friends list.
But that isn’t the case. Behind the scenes, there’s a small world of fact-checkers doing their best to make social media a more factual place — even when it seems Facebook genuinely doesn’t care either way.
Facebook’s Controversial Stance on Fact-Checking
For those losing track of every PR disaster that Facebook creates for itself, the social media giant has recently decided that it won’t fact-check ads from politicians run on its platform.
Nick Clegg, former UK deputy prime minister and now Facebook’s vice president of global affairs and communications, said in a company blog post that political ads would be treated as newsworthy content that should be seen and heard.
“We have a responsibility to protect the platform from outside interference, and to make sure that when people pay us for political ads we make it as transparent as possible,” Clegg wrote. “But it is not our role to intervene when politicians speak.”
In other words, the company won’t fact-check ads from any politicians, even if they violate policies that other users must abide by.
TechCrunch Editor-at-Large Josh Constine argues that Facebook risks giving a voice to politicians who will use the platform to spread lies, without giving users the tools to defend themselves.
Facebook had already abdicated responsibility by channeling suspected fake news to third-party fact-checkers, Constine writes. “To now say politicians can’t be fact-checked directly at all sets a critical and questionable precedent.”
The only stance Facebook has said it will take is to demote (but not remove) content that has previously been debunked by fact-checkers.
The social media platform’s stance has caused a backlash among employees, Mike Isaac at The New York Times reports. More than 250 employees have signed an open letter to CEO Mark Zuckerberg and other top Facebook executives that objects to the policy, claiming it’s “a threat to what FB stands for.”
This isn’t the first time Facebook’s fact-checking policies have made headlines, either. In July 2018, for instance, Zuckerberg claimed that the platform wouldn’t take down content that outright denied the Holocaust.
How Social Media Engage Fact-Checkers to Fight Fake News
That’s not to say Facebook doesn’t do any fact-checking at all. Since the 2016 election, Facebook has partnered with around 25 third-party fact-checking organizations to fight the stream of fake news on the platform, Wired’s Sara Harrison writes. Users can flag any content they deem false or misleading. Posts flagged repeatedly are then sent to the third-party partners, who then choose whether to evaluate the content.
FactCheck.org is one of the third-party organizations that works with Facebook. Facebook sends posts to FactCheck.org’s reporters, who analyze the stories and report their findings on the company’s own website. They also share the information with Facebook.
As a result, Facebook could identify who peddles misinformation on Facebook and take action against them, says Eugene Kiely, director of FactCheck.org. Facebook has said it will make chronic misinformers’ posts harder to find, meaning fewer clicks and less financial incentive to create fake news.
That’s not the only way that fact-checkers work to refute false information on social media. Spanish fact-checking organization Maldito Bulo post its fact checks on Instagram in the style of hoax posts. This is for visibility, writes co-founder Clara Jiménez Cruz. “We decided to copy the ‘bad guys’ in order to fight back. We decided to debunk hoaxes in the same format of the hoaxes that had proven so effective at reaching citizens. We decided to try to make the facts as viral as the lies. And it worked.”
As an example, one hoax post that misidentified a woman arrested during the Catalan independence demonstrations was shared 1,200 times on Twitter. The debunked post by Maldito Bulo was shared 8,400 times on Twitter and reached almost 300,000 people on Facebook.
The Fact-Checking Industry Has Big Concerns About Facebook
Speaking to the Guardian at the end of 2018, former Snopes managing editor Brooke Binkowski claimed that the social media giant had essentially used them as a PR tool. “They’re not taking anything seriously. They are more interested in making themselves look good and passing the buck … They clearly don’t care.”
UK fact-checking agency Full Fact, which signed up as one of Facebook’s third-party partners at the start of 2019, has two big concerns, Nieman Lab’s Laura Hazard Owen reports. These are scale and transparency, she writes, and both are complaints that other fact-checkers have levied at Facebook.
In a report, Full Fact writes that Facebook is focused on expanding its fact-checking program to as many countries and languages as possible without considering how to increase the volume of content or the speed at which is can be fact-checked. Full Fact also says it wants Facebook to share more data with fact-checking organizations “so that we can better evaluate content we are checking and evaluate our impact.”
Some fact-checkers have even been harassed. In Brazil, the abuse aimed at fact-checkers of one third-party organization became so vitriolic that team members had to close all of their personal pages, Melanie Ehrenkranz reports in Gizmodo.
Other organizations agree that Facebook doesn’t do enough when it comes to fact-checking. Global advocacy group Avaaz have called on Facebook to adopt their Correct the Record initiative. This initiative would mean that any user who had seen false information would be notified, writes Time’s Billy Perrigo.
“Under the Correct the Record initiative, social media companies would have to make sure that all users who see false information on their feeds are also later presented with fact-checks — whether in the form of a notification telling them something they’ve seen may have been misleading, or a pinned post in their newsfeed with a link to a fact-check by a ‘verified’ organization.”
Are Fact-Checkers Fighting a Losing Battle?
Fact-checkers themselves are getting pushback, particularly from the Republican right, says David Plazas, opinion and engagement director at the Tennessean. They have been labeled as fake news by those in the Trump administration. “And despite editorial campaigns to the contrary, the label is sticking, in large part, because of the perception that news sites cover the president unfairly.”
For some, rebuking false information simply doesn’t work. That’s according to research by University of Venice computer scientist Walter Quattrociocchi, which looked at five years of Facebook posts, likes and comments from 400-plus public pages. Quattrociocchi found that users who mainly consumed conspiracy-related content tended to only interact with other content that affirmed their worldviews. When they did come across content that debunks these theories, Quattrociocchi found that the conspiracy theorists were more likely to consume conspiracy-related content in the future, not less.
This means fact-checkers often only serve to further entrench the people committed to the falsehoods being fact-checked.
And when statements or memes are debunked, there’s no guarantee they won’t spread anyway. That’s because false information gets spread across different platforms and translated into different languages before fact-checkers have a chance to quash it, writes Politifact’s Daniel Funke.
For instance, in May 2019 Factcheck.org debunked a Facebook meme claiming that climate change is made up. The fact-checked version outperformed the original by more than 3,000 engagements, writes Funke. But two months later, the same false meme reappeared on Instagram, where it gained 10,000 new likes.
Furthermore, the fight against fake news is about to get much harder because of deep fakes, warns Aviv Ovadya, chief technologist at the Center for Social Media Responsibility. It’s now relatively easy to manipulate audio or video to make it seem as though someone is saying or doing something that they never did or said. And there are always armies of social media bots to distribute those deep fakes.
Fact-checkers are fighting a worthy and noble cause. But their battle is hard, long and thankless. Even the platforms that pay them don’t appear willing to help. Unless something significant changes soon, we risk losing the fight for factual information on social media.
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