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The fight against Facebook's conservative fact-checker

September 11 · Issue #203 · View online
The Interface
In December of last year, conservative publisher The Weekly Standard became an approved fact-checker at Facebook. It is the only partisan outlet to be approved as a Facebook fact-checker in the United States, and the decision to include it in the partnership alongside the Associated Press, Politifact, Snopes, and drew some criticism when it occurred, as Sam Levin reported at the time in the Guardian:
“I’m really disheartened and disturbed by this,” said Angelo Carusone, president of Media Matters for America, a progressive watchdog group that published numerous criticisms of the Weekly Standard after the partnership was first rumored in October. “They have described themselves as an opinion magazine. They are supposed to be thought leaders.”
Calling the magazine a “serial misinformer”, Media Matters cited the Weekly Standard’s role in pushing false and misleading claims about Obamacare, Hillary Clinton and other political stories.
The inclusion of a conservative outlet alongside nonpartisan news organizations set the stage for a conflict when, inevitably, that outlet weighed in on a controversial partisan issue. Today that day arrived.
On Sunday the liberal publisher ThinkProgress published an article by Ian Millhiser entitled “Brett Kavanaugh said he would kill Roe v. Wade last week and almost no one noticed.” In the piece, Millhiser takes a sentence from Kavanaugh’s testimony to Sen. Ted Cruz and extrapolates what he thinks it means, in light of statements Kavanaugh has made previously about abortion rights.
At no point in Kavanaugh’s testimony did the judge say he “would kill Roe v. Wade,” as the headline says. He did make statements that suggest is he likely to vote to overturn Roe vs. Wade, as Millhiser’s article explains. Say you’re the fact checker. Is ThinkProgress‘ story true or false?
The Weekly Standard said it was the latter, slapping the piece with a “false” label, which Facebook has said typically reduces an article’s reach by 80 percent. Millhiser objected to the rating in a new piece for ThinkProgress today:
The article in question, which this reporter wrote, pointed out that, when you read a statement Kavanaugh made during his confirmation hearing alongside a statement he made in a 2017, it becomes clear he is communicating that he opposes Roe v. Wade. Our article is factually accurate and The Weekly Standard’s allegation against us is wrong.
Millhiser defends his use of the word “said” in the headline by citing its dictionary definition:
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.
Of these words, “indicate” strikes me as much more honest than “said,” a verb commonly understood to indicate saying something out loud. So why didn’t Millhiser use “indicate” in his headline instead?
You don’t have to be an expert in publishing to know that “Brett Kavanaugh indicated he would kill Roe v. Wade last week and almost no one noticed” is a much weaker headline than the one Millhiser used. Most readers will only ever see the headline, of course. And so he fudged it to “said.” In adhering to one law of Facebook — use the headline that will generate the maximum possible outrage, and therefore clicks — he arguably violated another (stick to the truth).
Millhiser cops to his publication’s thirst for eyeballs in his piece today:
It’s no secret that the digital news business is driven by clicks. A news site that brings in many readers will also bring in a great deal of ad revenue, and this money can be used to hire reporters and to continue the outlet’s work. An outlet that loses a significant portion of its readership may have to lay off reporters or could even go under.
At its peak, Facebook provided as much as 40 percent of ThinkProgress’ traffic. Facebook recently changed its algorithm in ways that reduced the amount of traffic it sent to most news outlets, but it still accounts for between 10 to 15 percent of our readers. The difference between keeping those readers and losing them could decide whether we can hire more reporters who will continue to report on subjects that the Weekly Standard may have ideological disagreements about.
And yet I can’t help but feel, reading all of this, that the particularly dispute we are looking at is not ideological in nature. It’s semantic. And fact-checking is a vocation that often finds itself mired in petty word-based disputes like this.
“The real problem is not 'Is Facebook censoring progressives,’” tweets Alexios Mantzarlis, director of the International Fact-Checking Network at Poynter, which approved The Weekly Standard’s entry into its ranks, “but ‘Should Facebook ask fact-checking partners to flag stories based on headlines?’ and ‘How Literally?’ We know a lot of fakes travel off of a headline alone. Not acting on those opens a pretty big loophole.‘”
He goes on: “It seems to me that we’re stuck in a lethal loop where instead of improving a platform through data-based accountability and measured interactions we are making the conversation around Facebook’s actions to fight misinformation a 100% U.S.-centric partisan battle.”
Joshua Benton, who runs Harvard’s Nieman Lab, says the Weekly Standard ought to have developed a longer record as a fact-checker before it was allowed to weigh in on Facebook disputes. (It had barely begun to check facts before it became a Facebook partner.) He also suggests, smartly I think, that Facebook should not partner with organizations that select only a narrow slice of subjects — say, articles that challenge conservative talking points — to “fact-check.”
Instead, Facebook may take an even more democratic approach. Daniel Funke reported Tuesday on a new test from its subsidiary CrowdTangle, which makes software that lets you analyze how content spreads around the web:
CrowdTangle announced in a blog post that it’s testing a feature that allows users to report potentially false news stories within the platform’s Facebook dashboards. That test builds upon the company’s existing mechanism for reporting potential misinformation at the post-level as a regular user.
“We know media professionals who use CrowdTangle have a sense of the type of content being circulated that is false or misleading, especially outside the United States. Many also have an understanding of the active ecosystem of websites that generate false news,” Jesse Evans wrote in the post. “We want to give our partners the ability to quickly and easily report false news right where they are, inside CrowdTangle.”
Facebook says it won’t take action based on user reports, and instead only wants to see whether CrowdTangle reports constant a useful signal in identifying bad actors. But the experiment bears watching.
Ultimately, I’m with Mantzarlis. If an article is basically factually correct, but has a headline that is basically factually wrong, fact-checkers ought to take action — or what else are they for? Some people think the “false label” ought to be reserved only for moonbat headlines about the Pope being a lizard person, but it’s hard for me to see how that meaningfully improves our news ecosystem. The Weekly Standard is using the system as it was designed — and how that design should be improved is a different question.
If you’re curious, you can still see the ThinkProgress post that caused all the controversy. It’s there, uncensored and without any angry labels, on the publication’s Facebook page. It got 727 shares and more than 1,000 reactions, way above average for ThinkProgress. The vast majority of people who ever would have seen it had done so long before the Weekly Standard weighed in. True or false, Millhiser’s article was a hit.
That’s a feature of the current system, too.

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