Facebook tries to figure out what a fact is in an era of politicized truth

Facebook’s third-party fact-checking project, which was launched with much fanfare in December of 2016, has been criticized a number of times over the past year or so. And it came under fire again this week after the social network announced a list of partners that included a fact-checking site called Check Your Fact. The site is owned by The Daily Caller, a right-wing news outlet co-founded by Fox News host Tucker Carlson that has been criticized for a number of journalistic transgressions, including running articles by a white supremacist who helped organize the Charlottesville alt-right march.

Sleeping Giants, a group that has been organizing advertising boycotts aimed at Breitbart News, The Daily Caller, and other prominent right-wing media outlets, responded to the news of Check Your Fact’s participation with an angry tweet. “Poynter, as the people who run fact-checking for Facebook, can you please help me understand how you chose Daily Caller as a reliable source for this? This site is directly responsible for death threats to me and my family.”

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Baybars Orsek, director of the Poynter Institute’s International Fact-Checking Network, responded. He pointed out the IFCN and Poynter don’t run Facebook’s fact-checking program, they merely apply certain principles to fact-checking sites that want to be accredited by the network. If a site passes the assessment test, then it can be part of the network, Orsek said, and Facebook’s third-party partners have all passed that assessment. The criteria applied only to Check Your Fact, which The Daily Caller said is editorially independent from the news site.

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“I’d be happy to put our track record up against anyone else’s,” David Sivak, who runs Check Your Fact, told CJR. “If you comb through the articles we’ve published over the last two years, you’ll quickly see that our fact checks are fair, in-depth and hold figures on both sides of the political aisle accountable, including Trump.” The site’s fact-check database includes more than 20 checks of Trump facts, including his recent statement that windmills cause cancer (which was declared to be false).

But the history of how Check Your Fact came to be part of the Facebook project is a little more complicated, and shows the site has some powerful friends. In December, the Wall Street Journal reported that Joel Kaplan, the former Bush administration official who is now the VP of public policy at Facebook, had blocked an effort aimed at bursting news filter bubbles, arguing that this would inevitably be perceived as anti-conservative. He also reportedly pressed the company to include Breitbart News as part of its quality news plans, and suggested that The Daily Caller should be included in the fact-checking program.

This effort was sidelined after The Daily Caller’s fact-checking site initially failed the accreditation process set up by the IFCN. According to Alexios Mantzarlis, who was the director of the IFCN at the time, the site didn’t meet the standards for transparency about funding. It later reapplied with an updated disclosure, which mentioned that the majority of its funding comes from The Daily Caller, with some from The Daily Caller News Foundation, a separate entity that is funded by donations from a number of groups, including the Charles Koch Foundation. After these disclosures, it was accredited by the IFCN.

The furor over Check Your Fact is similar to a previous battle over a fact-check published by The Weekly Standard, another conservative news site. Holmes Lybrand, who was running the Standard’s fact-checking unit at the time (and is now at CNN) flagged as false a claim by the left-leaning site ThinkProgress that Brett Kavanaugh, then a candidate for the Supreme Court, “said he would repeal Roe vs. Wade if elected.” Lybrand noted that Kavanaugh had not said anything of the sort, which was accurate (although it could be argued that he suggested it strongly).

ThinkProgress founder Judd Legum said the incident called into question the validity of the entire Facebook fact-checking program, but Mantzarlis pointed out that The Weekly Standard’s fact-checking unit had passed the accreditation process, and that their fact-checking approach was as fair as anyone else’s.

A spokesperson for Facebook said the company “believes in having a diverse set of fact-checking partners,” but the reality is that it has gone out of its way to try to prove that it is not biased against conservatives who, after all, make money for the company just as liberal users do, and whose complaints perhaps carry more weight while Trump is in the White House.

This is not the only issue that has troubled the Facebook fact-checking effort. Snopes, one of the leading online fact-checking organizations and also one of the oldest, quit the project earlier this year, after two years as a partner, saying it wasn’t worth the cost and effort. Former Snopes managing editor Brooke Binkowski, who now runs her own fact-checking site called Truth or Fiction (which is not affiliated with Facebook), has said the program was essentially “just used for crisis PR,” to make it look as though the company was doing something. The social network “was more interested in making themselves look good and passing the buck,” she told The Guardian in an interview last year.

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Mathew Ingram is CJR’s chief digital writer. Previously, he was a senior writer with Fortune magazine. He has written about the intersection between media and technology since the earliest days of the commercial internet. His writing has been published in the Washington Post and the Financial Times as well as by Reuters and Bloomberg.