As part of its latest effort to combat the epidemic of fake news, Facebook has decided to add the conservative opinion magazine the Weekly Standard to its ranks of fact-checkers — despite a report saying that is was unprepared to take part in the fact-checking process.
Facebook announced that it was partnering with third-party fact checkers last December, one of several steps the social media giant was taking to combat the fake news and election interference which lawmakers have grown increasingly concerned about. The fact-checkers would help identify fake stories and lower them down in the news feed, in turn decreasing their popularity.
However, right-wing news outlets have repeatedly criticized Facebook’s fact-checking efforts, claiming that the non-partisan outlets they work with — like Snopes, Politifact and FactCheck.org — have a “liberal” bias. Steve Bannon’s Breitbart for instance said that all the groups “have records of left-wing partisanship — particularly throughout the 2016 election.” Meanwhile the Weekly Standard’s Mark Hemingway tweeted “OH HELL NO” and described Poynter and Politifact as “INCREDIBLY biased”.
— Mark Hemingway (@Heminator) December 15, 2016
Partly in response to these accusations of this bias, Facebook announced plans in October to allow the conservative magazine The Weekly Standard to help with fact-checking efforts, which was described as an “effort to appease all sides” by one insider to Quartz. “There are legitimate publications that write from a conservative point of view, and they are fact-based” he said.
But in order to be accepted as a fact-checker for Facebook, outlets first need to pass a verification process set up by the International Fact-Checking Network (IFCN) at the Poynter Institute, and ensure that it adheres to the IFCN’s code of principles. These include commitments to non-partisanship, fairness and open and honest corrections. The outlet also needs to submit a report to an independent journalism expert, who will judge whether or not the publication meets the organization’s standard.
According to Poynter’s report, the Weekly Standard initially submitted its request to be an approved fact-checker back in June, at which point it “did not comply with IFCN standards”. Since then however, the Standard is said to have made some “dramatic revisions and improvements”, most of which centre around its Fact Check section. However at the time of IFCN’s November assessment, the Fact Check section had only been active for three weeks, was hidden away on the Weekly Standard’s website with no clear way to access it and gave the impression that it was “simply an incomplete collection of the fact-checking articles, published by the organizations, rather than a discrete unit.” The report adds that, at one point, Mark Hemmingway was participating in the Weekly Standard’s “fact-checking” on the same day that he published a piece titled “Five Terrible Arguments Being Made About Pulling Out of the Paris Climate Agreement.”
Overall, the IFCN report gave the impression that the Weekly Standard acted like a highschooler hastily re-doing a homework assignment in order to comply with the Fact Checking Standards. The assessor, Mark Coddington, an assistant professor of journalism at Washington and Lee, wrote that he recommended several changes before the Weekly Standard was approved to take part in Facebook’s fact-checking efforts. “The IFCN calls for three months of consistent fact-checking before it is recognized as a distinct unit,” Coddington wrote. “The Fact Check needs to build up a larger sample of work in order to stabilize and be fully assessed in its current form.”
However, despite the recommendations of its own assessor, Poynter decided to provide the Weekly Standard with the credential it needs to team up with Facebook, “verifying” the magazine on December 6th. “A majority of the board determined that compliance should be based on when The Weekly Standard started publishing distinct fact checks, which was more than three months ago,” Alexios Mantzarlis, leader of the IFCN, told ThinkProgress. Poynter decided to speed up The Weekly Standard’s fact-checking verification, despite the repeated doubts of its own assessor.
The Weekly Standard’s also has a long history of dubious journalistic practices. In addition to criticizing the fact-checkers that it will soon be working with, the Weekly Standard has previously called the Iraq War “A war to be proud of” and labeled climate change “Dadaist science”. In 2004 the Weekly Standard’s current editor-in-chief Stephen F. Hayes published a book called “The Connection”, which focused on the widely-debunked notion that Al-Qaeda and Saddam Hussein were working together.
More broadly however, Facebook’s embrace of The Weekly Standard fits into a broader pattern of big tech companies lurching from left to right to try and find a one-size-fits-all solution to the problem of fake news and hate speech which have propogated on their platforms. Facebook for instance has previously tried promoting comments which question a story’s veracity — a move which backfired spectacularly. It has also run an experiment removing news article from the sites’ main newsfeed in six countries, a move which had a catastrophic effect on local news sites and has been described as “downright Orwellian”. There are even concerns that the much-touted fact-checking program is only having minimal impact.