For me, last week’s Facebook/ Instagram/WhatsApp/Messenger outage was much ado about nothing.
I do feel sorry for those businesses that rely on Facebook, but for everyone else, it should have been a welcome break; a chance to unplug at least for a few hours. Not that some people could, really, considering they’re so consumed by social media that they went to other platforms to complain about Facebook being down and put forth conspiracy theories (I mean, there was that whistle-blower on “60 Minutes” the night before … verrrry suspicious).
Once it came back online, there were the usual jokes among my friends about having somehow caused the outage, but for the most part, things returned to normal. Not that that’s a good thing. I spent a little time over the next few days checking out public group pages I ordinarily wouldn’t (conspiracy-heavy, fact-checker-hating, primarily) to see what the denizens there were thinking.
Hoo boy. My brain still feels discombobulated. But I did see a need, especially as it’s been so long for me, to talk about fact-checking.
One meme I saw (which I wasn’t able to find again; note to self: start making screenshots more often) complained about Facebook’s fact-checkers, maintaining that no one could fact-check something in less than a minute.
Well, duh. Fact-checking can take you down a lot of rabbit holes sometimes, and to write a full fact-check with links to sources can take hours just for research, and sometimes days (hell, weeks, sometimes). You have no idea how long it can take me to write a column, especially on fact-checking, without getting pulled into a research tangent hole. And re-editing it the next day for Wednesday’s page with fresh eyes? Fuhgeddaboutit.
So how does a fact-check get attached to something just minutes after it’s posted?
If the post is unoriginal (meaning it’s not new), algorithms might catch keywords and attach the appropriate fact-check, which is already written, or other users might report the post. If you thought that a fresh fact-check is done every time, disabuse yourself of that notion. Nobody has time for that, especially considering the amount of misinformation and disinformation posted on social media every hour of the day. Keyword detection is used, and if it’s something that hasn’t been checked before, especially in the case of trending topics, fact-checkers kick into gear and post the new fact-check as soon as it’s completed.
As Facebook reports on its Business Help Center page, “For each piece of misinformation that an independent fact-checker identifies, there may be thousands or millions of copies on our platforms. Once fact-checking partners have determined that a piece of content contains misinformation, we can use technology to identify near-identical versions across Facebook and Instagram. We then label and reduce the spread of this content automatically — enabling fact-checkers to focus on catching new instances of misinformation rather than variations of content they’ve already seen.”
Most of the time, Facebook will reduce the exposure of the information, partially by attaching a failed-fact-check screen that you must click on to read the post. In the case of repeat offenders, it appears, at least from posts on some of the anti-fact-checker pages, that Facebook will remove the posts or demonetize a page.
Facebook’s fact-checks are handled not by Facebook itself, but by independent third-party fact-checkers with the International Fact-Checking Network (IFCN). Facebook writes on its Facebook Journalism Project page: “Since 2016, our fact-checking program has expanded to include more than 80 organizations working in more than 60 languages globally. The focus of the program is to address viral misinformation—provably false claims, particularly those that have the potential to mislead or harm. …
“Fact-checkers review and rate the accuracy of stories through original reporting, which may include interviewing primary sources, consulting public data and conducting analyses of media, including photos and video. Fact-checkers do not remove content, accounts or pages from Facebook.”
You might remember that the reason Facebook contracted with fact-checkers in the first place was because of the massive amounts of disinformation found on Facebook during the 2016 election. The Associated Press reported that on Nov. 10, 2016, “Days after the election of President Donald Trump, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg calls the idea that ‘fake news’ on Facebook had influenced the election ‘a pretty crazy idea.’ He later walks back the comment.” In December, the fact-checking program was announced; Facebook later publicly acknowledged “that governments or other malicious non-state actors are using its social network to influence national elections, in line with U.S. government findings of Russian interference.”
Hence the need for fact-checkers on Facebook (many current nonpartisan fact-check groups got their start in the run-up to the 2008 election, when there was so much furor over Barack Obama, so they’re not brand-new). IFCN member organizations make a commitment, according to the Poynter Institute, to use the same standard for every fact check and let the evidence make the call. They also advocate transparency in their fact-check sources and methodology and their funding.
But sure, keep complaining about being dinged for a post about Henry Kissinger talking about mandatory vaccinations at the WHO Council on Eugenics (which doesn’t exist). Confirmation bias is more important, right?
Besides, it’s Facebook that does removals if something violates its community standards (though they leave up a lot of posts that are clear violations; grrrr), not fact-checkers. The fact-checkers have no power to remove anything from something that they don’t actually control, like the Facebook platform (the same way newsroom employees can’t access something on your newspaper-issued iPads; we have nothing to do with that; yes, I actually had to have this conversation this week).
So who is it you’re really angry with? Facebook, or someone who wants to make sure you have factual information? Is it too much to ask users to respect the terms of service of any platform they use?
I know. Stupid question. Here’s another one: Why haven’t I landed in Facebook jail yet? I feel really left out.
But what about fact-checkers’ personal biases?
Stephen J. Ceci and Wendy M. Williams wrote in The Scientific American, “Fact-checkers are human beings who live in the real world, rather than in a sociopolitical monastery. Let’s abandon the pretense of objectivity and design a system of adversarial fact-checking that places the evidence for competing claims front and center.”
The adversarial system they propose would have teams of fact-checkers with varying political views (that has its own multiple issues, especially as so many people span the spectrum on different things). True everyone has their own inherent biases, but the sources used to fact-check are, I believe, far more important than where someone lies along the range of political ideology, along with how the fact-checker operates.
Does the fact-checker link to its sources? (Those that do are more reliable, for the most part.) If so, does it link to original documents (campaign finance reports, for example) and reporting, or does it link to itself and/or opinion pieces (I’ve run across several “fact-checking the fact-checkers” sites that do exactly this) rather than unbiased/straight-news sources? Does it explain how it came to its ruling? When was the fact-check published, and have there been updates and/or corrections? (A site willing to correct and update fact-checks if new information comes to light is better.) Is the fact-checker site open about its funding sources?
FactCheck.org and PolitiFact, along with Reuters, are the ones I most often turn to precisely because they do those things that make them more trustworthy. They’re even willing to check memes, conspiracy theories and jokes when asked because it’s been made pretty clear over the past several years that some people believe them, no matter how outrageous they are.
Lest we forget, there was that man who in 2016 fired shots in the Comet Ping Pong pizzeria in Washington, D.C., in the course of “self-investigating” the theory that Hillary Clinton and others were operating a satanic child sex-trafficking operation in the business’ nonexistent basement.
Let’s not have a repeat of that, please.
Facts … they’re kinda important.