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Facebook’s idea of ‘fact-checking’: Censoring ThinkProgress because conservative site told them to

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Last year, Facebook announced that it would partner with The Weekly Standard, a conservative magazine, to “fact check” news articles that are shared on Facebook. At the time, ThinkProgress expressed alarm at this decision.

The Weekly Standard has a history of placing right-wing ideology before accurate reporting. Among other things, it labeled the Iraq War “A War to Be Proud Of” in 2005, and it ran an article in 2017 labeling climate science “Dadaist Science,” and promoted that article with the phrase “look under the hood on climate change ‘science’ and what you see isn’t pretty.”

The Weekly Standard brought its third-party “fact-checking” power to bear against ThinkProgress on Monday, when the outlet determined a ThinkProgress story about Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh was “false,” a category defined by Facebook to indicate “the primary claim(s) in this content are factually inaccurate.”

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.

There are serious consequences for publishing an article that one of Facebook’s third-party fact checkers decrees to be false.

As Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg recently wrote in the Washington Post, “we demote posts rated as false, which means they lose 80 percent of future traffic.”

When an article is labeled false under Facebook’s third-party fact-checking system, groups that share that article on Facebook receives a notification informing them that the article received a “False Rating” and that “pages and websites” that share that piece “will see their overall distribution and their ability to monetize and advertise removed.”

Facebook’s notification regarding our piece on Kavanaugh and Roe v. Wade effectively warned outlets not to share ThinkProgress content or risk censorship themselves. One group emailed ThinkProgress after receiving this notification to say they found it “threatening.”

ThinkProgress reached out to Facebook for comment on its third-party fact checking program and did not receive a response before this story was published.

The definition of the word “say”

After Facebook sent the push notification stating that our article received a “False Rating,” ThinkProgress reached out to Facebook taking issue with the fact check. A Facebook employee responded by email that Facebook defers to each independent fact-checker’s process and publishers are responsible for reaching out to the fact-checkers directly to request a correction.

The editors at The Weekly Standard do not appear to be interested in correcting their “fact check.”

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.

Pandering to the right

The Weekly Standard is one of only five outlets that enjoys the power to “fact check” other people’s work on Facebook. The other four are the Associated Press and three outlets that specialize in fact-checking — Factcheck.org, PolitiFact, and Snopes.com. No left-leaning outlet has this special ability to “fact check” other writers’ work.

To become a Facebook “fact checker,” an outlet must complete a verification process managed by the International Fact-Checking Network (IFCN) at the Poynter Institute.

Last November, IFCN determined that The Weekly Standard was only in “partial” compliance with its standards. Though the IFCN’s November report on The Weekly Standard indicated that the conservative news site eventually was likely to meet the IFCN’s standards, it also determined that “the current version of” the Weekly Standard’s operation “has existed for only three weeks, and the IFCN calls for three months of consistent fact-checking before it is recognized as a distinct unit.”

“The Fact Check needs to build up a larger sample of work in order to stabilize and be fully assessed in its current form,” according to IFCN’s November report.

Nevertheless, Facebook approved The Weekly Standard as one of its “fact-checking” partners in early December.

It appears that the Weekly Standard was added to Facebook’s roster of “fact-checking” outlets as part of a deliberate effort to pander to conservatives. A source told the news outlet Quartz that Facebook’s partnership with The Weekly Standard was part of an effort to “appease all sides.”

Earlier this year, Facebook also hired Republican Sen. John Kyl of Arizona to lead an “audit” of alleged “liberal bias at the expense of conservative voices” at the social media juggernaut. Kyl, according to Vice, “was regularly ranked among the country’s most conservative senators when he served from 1995 to 2013.” He was recently appointed to serve out the remainder of the late Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) term in office.

Shortly after Facebook hired Kyl to determine whether the site has a liberal bias, the Trump White House tapped Kyl to act as Judge Kavanaugh’s “sherpa” through his confirmation process.

There’s much more at stake

If Facebook continues its partnership with The Weekly Standard, the consequences could be quite severe for left-leaning outlets generally — or potentially for any other outlet which publishes a news article that The Weekly Standard disagrees with.

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.

Yet, as Facebook’s push notification makes clear, any group that shares a piece that The Weekly Standard deems false could be punished for doing so.

News outlets aren’t the only players at risk under this system. As a legal matter, Facebook is treading on very dangerous ground by providing no oversight of its own “fact checking” operation.

In its landmark decision in New York Times v. Sullivan, the Supreme Court held that an outlet can be liable for defamation if it publishes false information “with knowledge that it was false or with reckless disregard of whether it was false or not.”

By deferring to The Weekly Standard’s “expertise and process,” Facebook acted with reckless disregard of whether The Weekly Standard’s article was false or not.

Indeed, Facebook’s entire relationship with The Weekly Standard appears driven by reckless disregard for the truth.