By Cathy Young, contributor
In response to recent concerns about “fake news” and opinion-swaying hoaxes, Facebook has unveiled new measures to address the issue. But unless done right, these steps may create more problems than they solve — and boost claims that the “fake news crisis” is an attempt to impose political controls on the media.
One Facebook measure gives power to consumers themselves: Anyone will be able to report a hoax by clicking the upper right hand corner of a post.
This may accomplish some good, but the potential for abuse is immediately obvious. People can flood the system with fake reports of fake news, either to punish websites and news organizations they dislike or to subvert the fake-news-flagging process itsel.
More than a few people on the right and the “anti-establishment” left will get a huge kick out of slapping the “fake news” label on The New York Times, The Washington Post or CNN.
However, Facebook’s main mechanism for “fake news” oversight will be a program involving third-party fact-checkers. These organizations will check stories submitted as “fake” by readers. If they are, in fact, determined to be fake, they will be flagged as “disputed by third parties.”
People will see the “disputed” warning when they are about to share a link to such a story and will be encouraged to read the fact-checking report. Opportunities for advertising revenue from “disputed” news items will be severely limited as well.
Of course, that brings us to the great question first posed by the Roman satirical poet Juvenal some 2000 years ago: Who will watch the watchmen?
The announcement that established fact-checking organizations will be in charge of classifying some stories as fake was quickly met with derision on the right.
Indeed, conservatives have long claimed that fact-checking was riddled with anti-conservative bias and even conflicts of interest (as when PolitiFact, one of Facebook’s six United States-based fact-checkers, shot down a critique of a Clinton Foundation initiative without disclosing that one of that program’s principal funders was a major donor to PolitiFact’s parent organization, the Poynter Institute).
Conservatives argue that most fact-checking is opinion dressed up in the mantle of “Just the facts” — a blatant liberal attempt to control the discourse.
Are those charges fair? Depends on how you look at it.
For instance, in 2013 the Center for Media and Public Affairs found that over a four-month period, PolitiFact had rated 32 percent of Republicans’ claims as totally false (“pants on fire”) compared to just 11 percent of claims by Democrats, while rating 22 percent of Democratic claims and just 11 percent of Republican claims as “entirely true.”
The CMPA did not evaluate these ratings but merely tabulated them. Does this mean that PolitiFact was biased, or that Democrats were actually more truthful? The only thing we know for sure is that the fact-checking is, to use Facebook’s terms, “disputed.”
A look at fact-checkers’ explanations of their ratings will show that truth and falsehood are rarely black and white, at least in the mouths of politicians. More often than not, the devil is in the details — or in the context.
In at least some cases, accusations of dishonest fact-checking have been based on highly tendentious interpretation.
For instance, fact-checkers from several organizations took a lot of flak for branding then-Republican presidential candidate Carly Fiorina a liar after she talked about watching a pro-life group’s video exposé of Planned Parenthood, supposedly showing:
“a fully formed fetus on the table, its heart beating, its legs kicking while someone says we have to keep it alive to harvest its brain.”
In fact, one of the videos showed a former Planned Parenthood technician, now a pro-life activist, claiming that she had witnessed such a scene; her account was illustrated by footage of an aborted fetus with its leg twitching.
Conservative critics argued that since the fetus in the clip was “the same gestational age” as in the former technician’s account, Fiorina’s assertion was fundamentally accurate. But an uncorroborated allegation illustrated by unrelated footage is not even close to a video record of an actual incident — which is what Fiorina claimed.
Those who side with Fiorina over the fact-checkers should try turning the political tables.
Suppose a Democratic candidate had described watching video footage of a white police officer hurling racial slurs while repeatedly firing his gun into an unarmed, helpless black man. Suppose the actual video showed an ex-cop turned Black Lives Matter activist asserting that he had witnessed such an incident, with his story accompanied by footage of a dead body from a different police shooting.
Would any conservatives rise to defend the Democrat’s truthfulness?
In other instances, the fact-checkers fully deserved the backlash.
Last year, PolitiFact gave Donald Trump a “pants on fire” rating for his claim that “crime is rising,” based on government crime data from 1993 to 2014 (which show a steady drop in both violent crime and property crimes).
In response, the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative think tank, pointed to preliminary data from 2015 which do, in fact, show an upward trend in crime statistics.
But PolitiFact stood by its rating, arguing that Trump’s claim was false since it was made in the context of “sweeping rhetoric about a nation in decline” and did not include such qualifiers as “recently” or “in the past year.”
That’s not fact-checking, it’s nit-picking.
You don’t have to like or support Trump to conclude that on this matter, PolitiFact was being more political than factual.
What lessons does this offer for fake news-checking?
Unlike claims by politicians, many “fake news” stories that have made the rounds in the past year have involved outright fabrications, not just skewed reporting.
Pope Francis endorsing Donald Trump, Hillary Clinton selling weapons to ISIS, or Trump rally-goers shouting anti-black slogans is not a matter of context or interpretation; these stories were simply made up.
If Facebook’s third-party fact-checkers limit themselves to flagging stories that are straightforward hoaxes, that will go a long way toward making them credible. Tendentious reporting is not “fake news;” it happens all the time, across the political spectrum, and the only answer to it is more critical thinking on the part of readers and viewers, not more social-media controls.
Adding more conservatives to fact-checking operations would also help.
A fact-checking panel made up of journalists and experts from news organizations and think tanks across the political spectrum would be an excellent addition to the media landscape. It would promote cooperation across ideological lines, something that is becoming regrettably rare.
Most importantly, it would allay fears that the pushback against “fake news” is a vehicle for censoring real news and opinion.
Cathy Young is a contributing editor for Reason magazine and a columnist for Newsday. Follow her on Twitter at @CathyYoung63.