Facebook’s 3rd party fact-checking program falls short

Note: This is something I originally wrote for the daily newsletter at the Columbia Journalism Review, where I’m the chief digital writer

In December of 2016, in the wake of a firestorm of criticism about online disinformation and Facebook’s role in spreading it during the 2016 election, the social network reached out to a number of independent fact-checking organizations and created the Facebook Third Party Fact-Checking project. When these outside agencies debunked a news story or report, Facebook promised to make this ruling obvious to users, and to down-rank the story or post in its all-powerful News Feed algorithm so fewer people would see it. But even though the project has grown to the point where there are now 50 partner organizations fact-checking around the world, it’s still very much an open question how useful or effective the program actually is at stopping the spread of misinformation.

One of those raising questions is a relatively new Facebook fact-checking partner in the UK, known as Full Fact, a non-profit entity that recently published an in-depth report on the first six months of its involvement in the program. The group says its overall conclusion is that the third-party fact-checking project is worthwhile, but it has a number of criticisms to make about the way the program works. For example, Full Fact says the way Facebook rates misinformation needs to change, because the terminology or categories it applies aren’t granular enough to encompass the various different kinds. It also says that while the company has expanded to fact-check in 42 different languages, Facebook has so far failed to scale up the speed with which it flags and responds to fact checks. According to the group, it fact-checked just 96 claims in six months (and was paid $171,800 under the terms of its partnership contract).

One of the group’s other concerns is more fundamental: namely, that Facebook simply doesn’t provide enough transparency or clarity on the impact of the fact-checking that groups like Full Fact do. How many users did the debunks or fact-checks reach? How many clicked on the related links from the info pane? Did this slow or even halt the spread of that misinformation? Facebook doesn’t divulge enough data to even begin to answer those questions. Its only response to the Full Fact report and its 11 recommendations was to tell the group that it is “encouraged that many of the recommendations in the report are being actively pursued by our teams as part of continued dialogue with our partners, and we know there’s always room to improve.” There was no response to the criticism about a lack of data.

The complaint is not a new one. Earlier this year, a number of the social network’s fact-checking partners told the BBC they were concerned that there was no real way to see whether their work was having an effect, and that this suggested Facebook didn’t actually care about the efficacy of the program. “Are we changing minds?” wondered a fact-checker based in Latin America. “Is it having an impact? Is our work being read? I don’t think it is hard to keep track of this. But it’s not a priority for Facebook.” The program has been the subject of these and other criticisms almost since its inception. Last year, a number of partners seemed deeply cynical about it. “They’re not taking anything seriously. They are more interested in making themselves look good and passing the buck,” said Brooke Binkowski, former managing editor of fact-checking site Snopes.com, who now works for a similar site called Truth or Fiction.

The idea that a highly touted project might be primarily for PR purposes is a common theme with Facebook. Some believe the $300 million in funding it has committed to media ventures through the Facebook Journalism Project is primarily window-dressing, a way of buying the loyalties of those who receive the funding, in order to generate press releases that make the company look better in the eyes of Congressional regulators (many of whom are pushing an antitrust agenda). If Facebook wanted to give the impression that it actually cares about fact-checking, one obvious way to do so would be to open up its vast database and share more information about whether the project is actually working or not.

Here’s more on Facebook and fact-checking:

Checking in with the checkers: Last year, Mike Ananny wrote for CJR about a report he helped write for Columbia University’s Tow Center for Digital Journalism, which looked at the Facebook program and a number of criticisms participants had about how the project was structured and the criteria used, including why some posts and news stories were chosen for debunking but others were not.

What about Instagram? Among the recommendations in the report from Full Fact is that Facebook extend its fact-checking program to Instagram, the photo-sharing network it owns, which is much more popular with younger users than Facebook itself. “The potential to prevent harm is high [on Instagram] and there are known risks of health misinformation on the platform,” the group said.

A booming business: Fact-checking groups in Uruguay, Bolivia, Argentina, and Brazil have joined forces to create a national coalition in order to fight misinformation being spread both on Facebook and through WhatsApp, the encrypted messaging network the company owns. The groups are also working with organizations like First Draft, a fact-checking and training network based in the UK that is also affiliated with City University in New York.

Fact-checking Boris: The British TV network Channel 4 has done some fact-checking of government statements in the past, but in the wake of Boris Johnson’s recent ascension to the office of Prime Minister of the UK, the network says it is now committed to fact-checking every public statement Johnson makes during his tenure as PM, and has asked its viewers to help it do so.

Other notable stories:

The New York Times profiled a dying local newspaper from rural Minnesota, The Warroad Pioneer, which is shutting down after 121 years of publishing. According to the Times story, the paper and its three remaining employees ended their run “with Bloody Marys, bold type and gloom about the void it would leave behind.”

The Times also published a feature called A Future Without the Front Page, in which it asks: “What happens when the presses stop rolling? Who will tell the stories of touchdowns scored, heroes honored and neighbors lost?” The paper asked the founders of the Report For America project, the executive editor of Chalkbeat, a service focused on education reporting, and the founder of Outlier Media.

Conveying the sheer magnitude and gravity of the climate change crisis is often a challenge, but sometimes an image sums up more than words can express. A video clip shared on Twitter by a former fellow for the Council on Foreign Relations did that on Thursday, showing the swollen river that was created by a melting glacier in Greenland. According to Danish officials, more than 12 billion tons of glacier ice melted in a 24-hour period.

Less than a year after agents working for the Saudi Arabian royal family reportedly killed and dismembered Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi, the country says it will hold a media forum and award ceremony aimed at repairing its reputation. According to the Post, the number of journalists in prison in Saudi Arabia has also tripled in the last two years since Mohammed bin Salman took power.

Facebook said it removed 259 Facebook accounts, 102 pages, five groups, and 17 Instagram accounts that were engaged in what the social network calls “coordinated inauthentic behavior.” The company said the accounts originated in the United Arab Emirates and Egypt, and their behavior was focused on a number of countries in the Middle East and Africa, including Libya, Sudan, and Qatar.

Brenna Wynn Greer writes for CJR about the sale of the photo archives from Jet and Ebony, two pioneering magazines aimed at African-American readers. The archive, which included historic photos of events such as the lynching of Emmett Till, was acquired by four philanthropic foundations—the J. Paul Getty Trust, the Ford Foundation, the MacArthur Foundation, and the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation—for just under $30 million.

YouTube trolls advertised a new shelter in Los Angeles called the Ice Poseidon Homeless Shelter that turned out to be a private mansion belonging to a YouTube personality whose nickname is Ice Poseidon. The YouTube creator, whose real name is Paul Denino, told the LA Times that he has been the victim of trolling behavior before, including “swatting” attacks, in which trolls call 911 in an attempt to get SWAT teams to descend on a user’s home or workplace.

The Wall Street Journal reported that social media bots pushed divisive content and misinformation related to race during the Democratic debates, focusing specifically on Kamala Harris. But disinformation researcher Josh Russell said on Twitter that virtually every hashtag or search term will show signs of bot-like activity. “What matters are networks of bots,” said Russell, who only found signs of two relatively small spam networks trolling Harris.

A joint team from the Centre for Democracy and Development and the University of Birmingham in the UK spent months researching the impact of WhatsApp on the 2019 Nigerian elections that were held in May. Their report finds that the platform was used to mislead voters in some sophisticated ways, but the group also found that usage of WhatsApp actually strengthened democracy in other areas.

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