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Sept. 14, 2018, 9:43 a.m.
Audience & Social

With liberal and conservative outlets fighting, Facebook’s fact-checking program shows more cracks

Should one partisan news outlet be able to wield power over another, using Facebook as the cudgel?

The growing stream of reporting on and data about fake news, misinformation, partisan content, and news literacy is hard to keep up with. This weekly roundup offers the highlights of what you might have missed.

ThinkProgress vs. The Weekly Standard. Here’s a mini-saga that encompasses many of the things we argue about now.

Earlier this week, progressive politics site ThinkProgress posted an article headlined, “Brett Kavanaugh said he would kill Roe v. Wade last week and almost no one noticed.” Read the story and you’ll see that Supreme Court nominee Kavanaugh did not say outright that he’d vote to end Roe v. Wade (though it’s very likely that he wants to). He referred to previous case law in a way that suggests that he wants to restrict abortion rights, which again is not a surprise, since he was carefully vetted by the conservative, anti-abortion Heritage Foundation.

So: ThinkProgress’s headline is undoubtedly clickbait-y, and that’s fine and not surprising because #Internet, and that the conservative Weekly Standard fact-checked the story was also not surprising. In this case, however, things got more complicated: The Weekly Standard is also one of Facebook’s fact-checking partners (the only one with an explicit political bent) — and, because it has the power to do this, also marked ThinkProgress’s Kavanaugh story “false” on Facebook, which means it gets totally demoted in people’s feeds. (Not that people are seeing much news in their feeds anyway.)

Facebook’s other fact-checking partners are the Associated Press, PolitiFact, Snopes, and Factcheck.org. The Weekly Standard is the only one that explicitly associates itself with a political stance. When it uses its Facebook-given power to demote a liberal outlet, that feels troublesome.

Except that I think The Weekly Standard is correct in this case, at least that ThinkProgress’s headline, which is the only thing most people would see on Facebook, is misleading. Kavanaugh didn’t say straight out that he’d overturn Roe v. Wade; the body of the ThinkProgress story makes that clear. Here’s ThinkProgress’s Ian Milheiser:

The Weekly Standard’s fact-check appears to hinge on the definition of the word ‘said.’

Kavanaugh cited in his confirmation hearing the ‘Glucksberg test” — which refers to Washington v. Glucksberg, a 1997 Supreme Court decision establishing that the Constitution does not protect a right to physician-assisted suicide. Under Glucksberg, courts should determine which rights are protected by the Constitution by asking which rights are “deeply rooted in this Nation’s history and tradition.”

Kavanaugh also said in 2017 that “even a first-year law student could tell you that the Glucksberg’s approach to unenumerated rights was not consistent with the approach of the abortion cases such as Roe vs. Wade in 1973, as well as the 1992 decision reaffirming Roe, known as Planned Parenthood vs. Casey.”

Our article also cited law professors Jim Oleske and Jamal Greene, both of whom reached similar conclusions regarding Kavanaugh’s embrace of Glucksberg.

The Weekly Standard’s piece labeling this piece “false” provides no analysis of this argument. It merely asserts that our “article does not provide evidence that ‘Kavanaugh said he would kill Roe v. Wade.’”

According to Merriam-Webster’s dictionary, the verb ‘say’ or ‘said’ can mean to ‘indicate,’ ‘show,’ or ‘communicate’ an idea. Our argument is that Kavanuagh indicated, showed, or communicated his intention to overrule Roe when he endorsed the Gluckberg test after saying that Gluckberg is inconsistent with Roe.

Look, once you start to parse a word’s dictionary definitions — especially if the word is “said” — you’re on shaky ground and you should have used a different word in your headline, and if you’re getting to the point invoking Merriam-Webster, you know this. Slate’s William Saletan wrote:

ThinkProgress does excellent fact-checking of lies on the right. In these cases, it applies the sensible rule that if a person didn’t say something, you can’t accuse him of saying it. Over the years, ThinkProgress has invoked this rule in defense of Barack Obama, Joe Biden, James Comey, and James Clapper, among others. But when the same rule is applied to ThinkProgress, it accuses the fact-checker of ideological hackery. And it calls for the Standard to be removed from Facebook’s panel of approved fact-checking organizations, even though other organizations on the panel, in assessing the Kavanaugh hearings, have applied the same rule.

Rachael Larimore, The Weekly Standard’s online managing editor, tweeted that if ThinkProgress changes its headline, The Weekly Standard will change its rating.

That’s ultimately the more interesting question here. Should one news outlet be able to wield power over another news outlet via Facebook in this way — such that if the offending news outlet changes a word in its headline, the other news outlet, the one with with more fact-checking power, un-flags it on Facebook’s fact-checking dashboard, thus freeing the article to be seen (possibly) by more people (though who even knows how Facebook’s algorithm handles articles that have been marked and then un-marked false)?

I believe that ThinkProgress and The Weekly Standard are both behaving completely understandably. The problem is that Facebook has set up a fact-checking system that, by handing off moderation power to third parties, throws the door open to conflicts like this, and people are left to grasp at scraps of things random Facebook representatives have said about the program in the past because the actual rules as well as the consequences for violating them aren’t public. The thing that seems actually wrong here is that the two outlets are being left to battle this out via think pieces and Twitter, seemingly with no guidance or word from Facebook whatsoever. A Facebook spokeswoman told me, “We have an appeals process in place. In order to appeal or contest a rating, publishers can contact the third-party fact-checking organization directly.” But that’s not really an appeals process — it’s telling the two publishers to duke it out on their own, which is what they’re doing here.

A Facebook spokeswoman told me that, once a fact-checker rates a story as false, the story in question is automatically demoted. “If another fact-checker were to rate the story true (and we now have one true rating, one false rating) we’ll optimize for true and we won’t demote the content in question, but we will still show the Related Articles unit below the story, which displays explainer articles from both fact-checkers, so people have all of that context available,” she said. “To caveat, though: this is extremely rare and we don’t usually see this level of true/false disagreement from fact-checkers.”

Facebook shouldn’t have outsourced this work in the first place, and it should stop outsourcing it now. It should work with the International Fact-Checking Network to come up with a set of fact-checking guidelines specifically for its platform, and then it should train and hire fact-checkers who are also Facebook employees to carry out those practices.

That’s what I think. According to Merriam-Webster, “think” means “to hold as an opinion.” And here are some other thoughts, if you’d like to delve into this further. Meanwhile, Facebook is scaling its third-party fact-checking program up.

Illustration from L.M. Glackens’ The Yellow Press (1910) via The Public Domain Review.

POSTED     Sept. 14, 2018, 9:43 a.m.
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