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Elizabeth Warren wants answers on Facebook’s fact-checking loophole

Controversy over Facebook’s handling of climate misinformation is drawing scrutiny on Capitol Hill.

Sen. Elizabeth Warren in the Capitol on May 18, 2020.
Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images
Rebecca Heilweil covered emerging technology, artificial intelligence, and the supply chain.

Sens. Elizabeth Warren, Tom Carper, Brian Schatz, and Sheldon Whitehouse are demanding more information from Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg about a reported “loophole” for climate misinformation in Facebook’s fact-checking program.

In a letter sent to Zuckerberg on Wednesday, the senators reference a widely reported-on incident from last year that involved a story about climate change models written by two people from an organization called the CO2 Coalition and published by the Washington Examiner. The piece questioned the extent of climate change and was flagged as false by one of Facebook’s third-party fact-checking partners, Science Feedback. Five scientists contributed to the fact-check and concluded that the piece had “very low” scientific credibility and misled people about how climate change models actually work, and the post was labeled as false. The label was later removed after Facebook reiterated to Science Feedback its policies about fact-checking opinion.

“If Facebook is truly ‘committed to fighting the spread of false news on Facebook and Instagram,’ the company must immediately acknowledge in its fact-checking process that the climate crisis is not a matter of opinion and act to close loopholes that allow climate disinformation to spread on its platform,” the senators wrote. They also ask Zuckerberg to explain how disinformation related to Covid-19 and vaccinations differs from disinformation related to climate change.

As the senators’ letter points out, Facebook’s handling of this particular incident raises questions about how the platform handles fact-checking as well as all content on its platform that is labeled as or deemed to be opinion. The lawmakers also raised questions about the extent to which Facebook is actually committed to clamping down on disinformation. Now, Warren and her colleagues want to know more about what types of posts Facebook is exempting from fact-checking because they’re deemed opinion and how Facebook factors in false information about climate change within its overall efforts to combat fake news.

Facebook admits there’s confusion about its approach. Facebook’s policy communications director Andy Stone told the New York Times earlier this week that the company’s opinion exception for fact-checking has existed since 2016. According to the paper, “Mr. Stone said that The Washington Examiner post, originally published as an op-ed, clearly aligned with Facebook’s definition of opinion content and added that fact checkers should have been aware of that classification.” Stone also said that climate change content doesn’t create an imminent threat to peoples’ health or safety.

But following the publication of that article, Facebook representative Liz Bourgeois provided another statement, which was shared with Recode.

“When someone posts content based on false facts — even if it’s an op-ed or editorial — it is still eligible for fact-checking,” Bourgeois said. “We’re working to make this clearer in our guidelines so our fact checkers can use their judgment to determine whether it is an attempt to mask false information under the guise of opinion.”

In short, just because content calls itself opinion doesn’t mean it’s ineligible for fact-checking. The statement comes amid concern that those seeking to spread misinformation, including those that deny climate change, could claim their content was opinion in order to avoid Facebook’s fact-checking process.

There’s also concern over who ultimately gets to decide what content is deserving of a fact-check. On its website, Facebook says that those seeking to appeal fact-checkers’ decisions should go to those fact-checkers directly. A Facebook spokesperson also told Recode that Science Feedback removed the rating after Facebook clarified guidance about its approach to rating opinions. Meanwhile, a science editor for Science Feedback’s Climate Feedback, Scott Johnson, told Recode in an email: “We were informed by the Facebook team that the Washington Examiner article should be considered opinion and ineligible for a fact-check rating.”

“Even though they claim that it’s an opinion piece, there were many statements of fact in the piece, and those statements were either wrong or misleading,” Andrew Dessler, a climate change expert at Texas A&M who contributed to the Science Feedback fact-check, told Recode. “Facebook is this impenetrable fortress that nobody has any idea — as far as I can tell, at least — how these decisions are made. So I don’t know who made the decision to do it.”

The confusion over what’s is eligible for fact-checking come as Facebook faces accusations of having a double standard for misinformation. While Covid-19 misinformation has been aggressively taken down — for having the threat of imminent harm — climate misinformation isn’t treated the same way. At the same time, the company is still facing wide-ranging criticism over how it handles sources of misinformation and disinformation.

“[T]he climate crisis and environmental degradation are not matters of opinion,” the senators wrote. “They are existential threats that hurt communities and economies throughout the world — including and especially Black communities and other communities of color — and will continue to do so.”

This echos other critics of the platform. Earlier this month, climate leaders and several prominent politicians, including Tom Steyer and Stacey Abrams, wrote a letter to Facebook’s Oversight Board demanding that the company close the loophole that allows content to be deemed ineligible for fact-checking after being labeled as opinion. That letter followed a joint report from the newsletters HEATED and Popular Information. At the same time, Facebook is facing an ongoing boycott from advertisers called Stop Hate for Profit, which is led by civil rights leaders urging the company to fight hate speech and misinformation, including climate denialism.

“I think that Facebook is making a business decision here. This is not any kind of principled stand about opinion,” said Dessler about the confusion surrounding Facebook’s policies. “We’ve gotten ourselves into a terrible situation here where we’ve left it up to corporations to make decisions about what people can say.”

Update, July 16, 3:15 pm ET: We’ve added more information about Facebook’s fact-checking system and the senators’ letter to this article.

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