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April 20, 2018, 9:50 a.m.
Audience & Social

Can Facebook beat back the fake news in Ireland’s upcoming vote on abortion?

Plus: What people who like fact-checking are like, a new “digital deception” newsletter, and Facebook expands its fact-checking partnerships beyond the West.

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.

Facebook ad transparency ahead of Ireland’s abortion referendum. On May 25, Irish citizens will vote on whether to end the country’s abortion ban. In advance of the referendum, CNN’s Ivana Kottasová reports, Facebook is rolling out a new tool that will “give users more information about political advertisements and sponsored posts in their News Feeds.” It’s already been tested in Canada and will roll out globally before the U.S. midterms.

The Independent’s Adrian Weckler has more on how the tool will work:

Under the new ad transparency system, Irish users can see all ads an advertiser is running on Facebook at the same time, even if those ads are not in the user’s own news feed.

Facebook users can click on the advertiser’s Page, select “About” and scroll to “View Active Ads” where they will see all of the ads that Page is running on Facebook.

I went looking for more information on, specifically, fake news around abortion; last fall, British writer Rossalyn Warren argued in a New York Times opinion column that Facebook has been too slow to address it:

So far, Facebook and the public have focused almost solely on politics and Russian interference in the United States election. What they haven’t addressed is the vast amount of misinformation and unevidenced stories about reproductive rights, science, and health.

Evidence-based, credible articles about abortion from reputable news outlets like The New York Times and The Washington Post didn’t make it to the top of the list of “most shared” articles on Facebook last year, according to BuzzSumo. But articles from the site did.

LifeNews, which has just under one million followers on Facebook, is one of several large anti-abortion sites that can command hundreds of thousands of views on a single post. These sites produce vast amounts of misinformation; the Facebook page for the organization Live Action, for instance, has two million Facebook followers and posts videos claiming there’s a correlation between abortion and breast cancer. And their stories often generate more engagement than the content produced by mainstream news organizations, said Sharon Kann, the program director for abortion rights and reproductive health at Media Matters, a watchdog group. People on Facebook engage with anti-abortion content more than abortion-rights content at a “disproportionate rate,” she said, which, as a result of the company’s algorithms, means more people see it.

I asked Susan Daly, editor of and head of the site’s FactCheck initiative, about what she’s seeing in Ireland right now; our email conversation is below.

Laura Hazard Owen: What is it like in Ireland right now?

Susan Daly: It’s a very emotive and sensitive time in Ireland right now.

As a consequence of this being a referendum (rather than an election), there is already an implicit black/white quality about the debate because it’s a Yes/No outcome.

Add to that the fact that it has a similarly personalized and divisive legacy — the amendment under discussion was itself passed in a referendum in 1983, in a fairly bitter campaign — and you have a tense situation.

Owen: What are you seeing in terms of abortion-related misinformation?

Daly: It’s noticeable that there are not so many blatant articles being disseminated that are #fakenews in the way you might understand it in an election campaign such as the most recent U.S. campaign.

The misinformation or cloudiness is emanating from social media posts that are native to those platforms — memes/photos/videos — and on billboards, which naturally go for soundbites that can lack the context needed for a casual passerby to make an informed decision on its veracity.

Our experience is that the pro-life campaign (“No” to repealing the amendment) is very focused on the issue of abortion and using very specific statistics around that. We have found one prominent slogan to be untrue in the form in which it is being used on prominent billboards around the country. Worryingly, the producers of that billboard have weaponized our own FactCheck against us and used our credibility to amplify their own disproven claim to their network. Poynter covered that story here.

The pro-choice campaign side (“Yes” side) is focusing more on the effect the Eighth Amendment has had on women in general. It also has implication for maternity care, access to medical treatment while pregnant, etc. You tend to find fewer hard and fast stats that can be tested from this side, as the overall message is that it’s a healthcare issue. We have yet to see whether this changes as the vote comes nearer.

Owen: How is this different to or similar from what you might have seen in past elections? What has the fake news environment been like in Ireland up until now?

Daly: It might be instructive to look at the pattern from the fact-checks we have done in the past. They tend to be testing — for the most part — claims made by politicians. Now, for the main, that might be because our project began as a way of testing election campaign promises in the general election here two years ago. However, it also shows that the influence of politicians on public decision-making is traditionally strong here, so the impact of a false statement from them is significant.

However, I would say that this referendum is showing that the impact of influencers on social media — known and unknown — is becoming much more significant than in the past. Most of the political parties here are actively campaigning for a “Yes” [legalize abortion] vote, including the ruling government party Fine Gael, so the debate is not raging so much in the houses of Parliament this time and filtering downward to the public conversation.

It appears to me that there is a parallel and altogether less easy-to-predict conversation happening within smaller networks of those personally known to the voter in closed messaging groups, or in social media networks they engage in.

The Transparent Referendum Initiative has built a database of “all political ads targeting Irish Facebook users ahead of the referendum on the 8th amendment,” available here.

Facebook fact-checking in more countries. Facebook is expanding its fact-checking partnerships to more non-Western countries, Poynter’s Daniel Funke reports. Pranav Dixit wrote for BuzzFeed on the expansion into India, where Facebook will work with the Mumbai-based fact-checking organization Boom:

Govindraj Ethiraj, the founder of Boom, told BuzzFeed News that the company expects to fact-check two to three additional pieces of content every day as a result of the partnership with Facebook. “From our point of view, we are continuing to do what we already do,” said Ethiraj, but added that Boom would hire two additional people to fact-check stories related to Karnataka. “There is a small amount of money [from Facebook] involved,” he said, “but not enough to build fact-checking empires.”

Whose responsibility should it be to regulate fake news online? Americans would rather have tech companies do it than the government, according to new research from Pew. There are some differences by political party, age, education level, and gender: “At least six-in-ten adults ages 18 to 29 (65 percent) and 30 to 49 (62 percent) prefer no government restrictions on information flow compared with 53 percent of those 50 to 64 and 48 percent of those 65 and older.”

What people who like fact-checking are like. The independent U.K. fact-checker Full Fact did an audience survey and published the results this week. This is obviously a completely self-selecting group: existing fans of Full Fact who then chose to take a survey. (YouGov surveys had previously suggested that 2 percent of British citizens had heard of Full Fact in 2016, and 3 percent in 2017.) But here are a few of the findings about the 2,000-plus people who responded (Full Fact also did follow-up interviews with nine of them):

— Search is the main traffic driver to Full Fact’s site, accounting for 57 percent of traffic. Seventy-three percent of the site’s users are new.

— Most of the survey’s respondents — and most of the site’s visitors in general, according to Google Analytics — are male: 66 percent of respondents and 64 percent of visitors are men.

— Respondents were very politically active; “the vast majority had voted in the past 12 months, and identified themselves as having substantial political knowledge.” They were more likely than the general British population to have both bachelor’s degrees and advanced degrees.

— The most commonly cited reason to use Full Fact was to fact-check things in the news (65 percent). Forty-one percent of respondents said they use it to check their own beliefs. Twenty-seven percent used it to prove a point.

The full report is here.

New from BuzzFeed: The Fake Newsletter. BuzzFeed’s Jane Lytvynenko and Craig Silverman have a new newsletter on “digital deception,” which you can subscribe to here.

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

Laura Hazard Owen is the editor of Nieman Lab. You can reach her via email ( or Twitter DM (@laurahazardowen).
POSTED     April 20, 2018, 9:50 a.m.
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