Facebook knows that the spread of fake news on the platform during the 2016 presidential campaign was almost its undoing, so it has chosen to partner with third-party media organizations to fact-check publishers on its platform in order to stave off more criticism. That makes sense. But some of its choices in partners — including a new fact-checker funded by a right-leaning news outlet founded by Tucker Carlson — has only invited more.
Last week, Facebook announced that it’s partnering with Check Your Fact — a subsidiary of the right-wing Daily Caller, a site known for its ties to white nationalists — as one of six third-party organizations it currently works with to fact-check content for American users. The partnership has already come under intense criticism from climate journalists (among others) who are concerned that the Daily Caller’s editorial stance on issues like climate change, which is uncontroversial among scientists but isn’t treated as such on right-wing media, will spread even more misinformation Facebook.
In an interview, Facebook spokesperson Lauren Svensson defended the partnership. She noted that Check Your Fact, like all fact-checkers Facebook partners with, is certified by Poynter’s International Fact-Checking Network (IFCN). Asked about the right-wing proclivities of Check Your Fact’s parent company, Svennson referred to the IFCN’s certification processes and said that “we do believe in having a diverse set of fact-checking partners.” Check Your Fact, for its part, says it operates independently from the Daily Caller, and touts its record of accurate fact-checks.
The reality is that Facebook has a fake news problem that could hurt its bottom line, but it also has a political problem. If it doesn’t give credence to popular but disreputable websites like the Daily Caller, it runs the risk of angering Republicans who use the platform. But in credence to sites of that sort, the platform runs the risk or perpetuating the same “fake news” problem third-party fact-checkers are meant to solve.
Facebook’s fake news problem, explained
As Timothy B. Lee explained for Vox days after the 2016 election, “fake news” was a big problem on Facebook during that year’s presidential campaign:
Over the course of 2016, Facebook users learned that the pope endorsed Donald Trump (he didn’t), that a Democratic operative was murdered after agreeing to testify against Hillary Clinton (it never happened), that Bill Clinton raped a 13-year-old girl (a total fabrication), and many other totally bogus “news” stories. Stories like this thrive on Facebook because Facebook’s algorithm prioritizes “engagement” — and a reliable way to get readers to engage is by making up outrageous nonsense about politicians they don’t like.
After a ton of public scrutiny, including in the form of high-profile congressional hearings, Facebook after the election began partnering with news organizations like the Associated Press, FactCheck.org, Lead Stories, PolitiFact, and Science Feedback to fact-check publishers. That’s all well and good — those organizations have reputations for nonpartisanship and accuracy.
But in attempting to stifle “fake news,” Republicans have noticed that right-leaning news outlets, ideas, and politicians sometimes got caught up in the purge. Just look to Alex Jones, who actively spread conspiracy theories due to his popularity on platforms like Facebook and YouTube. Conservatives began to complain they were unfairly targeted. Earlier this month, Sen Ted Cruz (R-TX) held hearings interrogating big tech precisely on the issue of bias against conservatives.
To counter those (mostly unfounded) allegations that the platform is biased toward liberals, Facebook is partnering with right-wing sites as well.
This leads to situations where Facebook partners with right-leaning organizations to fact-check liberals sites. Some liberal sites have been targeted as “false,” thereby limiting distribution of the “false” article by as much as 80 percent — a big problem considering Facebook is still the most commonly used platform in the country for news, despite reductions in distribution that have hurt liberal and conservative news sites alike.
The first conservative site Facebook partnered with for fact-checking was the Weekly Standard, which ceased operations last December. That partnership became a source of controversy three months before then, when conservative fact-checkers flagged an article from the liberal publication ThinkProgress as “false” on semantic grounds. (Full disclosure: I am a former ThinkProgress employee, as are several other current Vox staffers.) As Vox’s Zack Beauchamp explained at the time, while the article’s thesis was arguably accurate, the headline likely went too far. But the punishment resulting from the Weekly Standard’s “false” designation was worse than the crime:
Last week, the liberal publication ThinkProgress published a piece on Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh’s confirmation hearing with the headline “Brett Kavanaugh said he would kill Roe v. Wade and almost no one noticed.” The fact-checker for the Weekly Standard ruled it was false. Facebook’s punishment mechanism kicked in, and the ThinkProgress article was cut off from being seen by about 80 percent of its potential Facebook audience.
On Tuesday, the author of the ThinkProgress piece — editor Ian Millhiser — publicly defended the thesis of his piece and accused Facebook of “pandering to the right” by allowing a conservative magazine to block liberal articles. The stakes here are high: Facebook provides about 10 to 15 percent of ThinkProgress’s traffic, which means that getting choked off from readers there is a nontrivial hit to its readership.
Svensson told Vox that there was no direct connection between the Weekly Standard shutting down and Facebook partnering with another conservative site.
Facebook reportedly has been interested in partnering with the Daily Caller for some time. In December, the Wall Street Journal reported that Joel Kaplan, a former White House aide to George W. Bush who now serves as Facebook’s global policy chief and is the company’s “protector against allegations of political bias,” made a failed push to partner with the Daily Caller last year:
This summer, Mr. Kaplan pushed to partner with right-wing news site The Daily Caller’s fact-checking division after conservatives accused Facebook of working only with mainstream publishers, people familiar with the discussions said. Conservative critics argued those publications had a built-in liberal bias.
Mr. Kaplan argued that The Daily Caller was accredited by the Poynter Institute, a St. Petersburg, Fla.-based journalism nonprofit that oversees a network of fact-checkers. Other executives, including some in the Washington, D.C. office, argued that the publication printed misinformation. The contentious discussion involved Mr. Zuckerberg, who appeared to side with Mr. Kaplan, and Chief Operating Officer Sheryl Sandberg. The debate ended in November when The Daily Caller’s fact-checking operation lost its accreditation.
According to IFCN director Baybars Örsek, Check Your Fact was expelled from IFCN’s verified signatories last November because “they failed to disclose one of their funding sources [the Daily Caller News Foundation] in their application,” but were reinstated earlier this year after reapplying.
But even though Check Your Fact is now being more transparent about its funding sources, those funding sources in and of themselves present problematic conflicts of interest — ones that the IFCN’s certification process doesn’t account for.
How Facebook chooses its fact-checkers
All the fact-checkers Facebook partners with are certified by Poynter’s International Fact Checking Network (IFCN). Poynter evaluates applicants based on a set of criteria including “nonpartisanship and fairness,” “transparency of sources,” “transparency of funding and organization,” “transparency of methodology,” and an “open an honest corrections policy.”
IFCN certification is a necessary condition for partnering with Facebook, but once a site is certified, it’s up to Facebook to decide whether to partner with it. There are currently 62 organizations with IFCN certification globally, but Facebook only partners with six in the United States.
“We don’t believe we at Facebook should be responsible for the veracity of content,” Facebook spokesperson Svensson told me. “We believe in the credibility of fact-checkers that [IFCN] certifies.”
Notably, however, the IFCN’s criteria for certification does not include conflicts of interest. That’s the source of one of the concerns climate journalists are raising about Check Your Fact.
According to a report published last month by PRWatch, the Charles Koch Foundation accounted for 83 percent of the Daily Caller News Foundation’s revenues in 2016, and the Daily Caller News Foundation employs some of Check Your Fact’s fact-checkers. Greenpeace reports that the Koch Family Foundations spent more than $127 million from 1997 to 2017 financing groups “that have attacked climate change science and policy solutions.”
That conflict of interest has raised concerns that Check Your Fact’s fact-checking role could have a chilling effect on climate journalism on Facebook.
As leading climatologist Michael Mann told ThinkProgress, “It is appalling that Facebook has teamed up with a Koch-funded organization that promotes climate change denial. ... Facebook must disassociate itself from this organization.”
Facebook says it wants a “diversity” of organizations for fact-checking, but according to Media Bias/Fact Check, none of the fact-checkers Facebook currently partners with in the US are left-leaning, and Check Your Fact is the only one with a right-of-center rating. Facebook is essentially buying into the argument conservatives have laid forth — that mainstream news outlets have a liberal bias and that conservatives need special consideration in the process.
Having accurate fact-checks doesn’t mean a fact-checker is free of bias
Check Your Fact’s website pledges that the site is “non-partisan” and “loyal to neither people nor parties — only the truth.” (Full disclosure: Check Your Fact has also fact-checked one of this author’s own tweets). It also talks up the website’s “editorial independence.” Indeed, a perusal of Check Your Fact’s website doesn’t indicate that there’s anything factually wrong with the site’s fact-checks, but the stories it chooses to fact-check speak to a bias of its own.
For instance, as of April 30, the site’s homepage features more fact-checks of statements made by Hillary Clinton — for example, “FACT CHECK: Did Hillary Clinton Once Say That Democratic Voters Are ‘Just Plain Stupid’?” (the site notes there’s no evidence Clinton ever said it) — than it does statements from the current president, Donald Trump, who just surpassed a historic 10,000 false or misleading claims from mainstream fact-checkers.
And as Scott Waldman recently detailed for E&E News, even when Check Your Fact does fact-checks of claims like Trump’s recent one about wind turbines causing cancer that ultimately arrive at the correct conclusion (Trump’s claim was false), the site elevates fringe voices in the process.
While the website labeled the claim as false — and quoted cancer experts saying as much — it also quoted National Wind Watch, an antiwind group that organizes and fights against wind turbines throughout the country. A spokesman for that group claimed the president was correct; he said turbines cause a lack of sleep and stress, which can lead to cancer.
In March, Check Your Fact gave credence to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s claims that the Green New Deal would cost more than every dollar the federal government has spent in its history. The Kentucky Republican and Check Your Fact relied on a single study, produced by a conservative think tank, the American Action Forum.
But the author of that study has acknowledged that its calculation of a $93 trillion price tag is essentially a guess, since the Green New Deal is currently a vague resolution. E&E News has reported on how the American Action Forum is connected to a web of conservative groups that fund political attacks through undisclosed donors and that have been funded by fossil fuel lobbying interests opposed to environmental regulations (Climatewire, April 1).
It would be hard to complain if Facebook partnered with reputable websites for fact-checking. But in order to preempt accusations of left-wing bias, the platform has repeatedly partnered with outlets that draw into question how committed the platform really is to rooting out fake news. (In a statement sent to Vox, Check Your Fact editor David Sivak pushed back on characterizations of his site as being biased toward the right, writing, “[t]hese last couple of weeks have been revealing, as a number of news outlets have resorted to misrepresenting our work. Even when we fact-check conservatives for putting words in Hillary Clinton’s mouth, that’s somehow misconstrued as conservative ‘bias’ on our part. The truth is, Check Your Fact has a two-year track record of fair, evenhanded articles that hold figures on both sides of the political aisle accountable, including Trump.”)
There are indications that Facebook’s fact-checking problems go deeper than its partnership with the Daily Caller. In February, one of the sites that was working with Facebook, Snopes, announces it was ending the partnership.
Two months before that announcement, the Guardian reported on some of the frustrations that may have motivated that decision.
“Current and former Facebook factcheckers told the Guardian that the tech platform’s collaboration with outside reporters has produced minimal results and that they’ve lost trust in Facebook, which has repeatedly refused to release meaningful data about the impacts of their work,” the Guardian reported.
The disease of fake news is bad. But the “cures” Facebook is trying have side effects of their own.
Facebook knows that it faces a tough situation. Much of its value lies in the fact that it has such a wide user base — liberal or conservative, old or young — and that it can monetize those users. The prevalence of misinformation threatens its ability to survive in a very real way, but so does potential regulation from Republican politicians who don’t seem to have a firm grasp of how the internet works but harp on about liberal bias anyway.
Facebook, by partnering with a right-wing fact-checking organization, is making a concession to conservative arguments. But by not including liberal sites, it’s also tacitly suggestion that mainstream outlets have a liberal bias — which isn’t necessarily true.
There’s no doubt that Facebook has had a tough year in a lot of ways. Its valuation dropped roughly $120 billion last summer, it suffered a number of security breaches, and it’s been accused of helping incite genocide. In some ways, offering up a right-leaning fact-checking organization to mollify Ted Cruz might seem like the least of its worries. But it has a very heavy thumb on the scale of which news outlets survive in an era when so much news is obtained online. The way it responds to conservative critics says a lot about which ones are the most useful for its own survival.