Is There Recourse When Fact Checkers Get It Wrong?
In its fight against “fake news,” Facebook has elevated nearly three dozen of the world’s fact-checking websites to be the ultimate arbitrators of what constitutes “truth” online. In the past, when fact checkers made mistakes, there was little consequence to their errors – one could choose to simply ignore those fact checkers that strayed too far from evidence-based verification. In the Facebook era, however, those fact checkers now have the ability to banish any statement or evidence they believe to be false and even to effectively blacklist outlets they disagree with. This raises an obvious question: Are there checks and balances to this awesome power – any recourse when fact checkers get things wrong?
The short answer is no, as Facebook says it defers exclusively to fact checkers and won’t intervene to prevent a fact checker’s contested verdict from suppressing a story’s visibility or demonetizing a news outlet.
More than any other company, Facebook has turned to fact-checking organizations to help it police “fake news” on its platform. Through a special partnership, Facebook has essentially handed over the keys to its kingdom, granting those organizations the exclusive right to determine what is true and can be discussed and what is false and must be removed. Those statements and stories deemed false by fact checkers are immediately suppressed, resulting in an 80 percent reduction in visibility, while the outlets publishing those stories can be demonetized or face other sanctions.
The consequences of so much power centralized in the hands of so few are far from hypothetical.
In March the satirical website Babylon Bee published a spoof claiming CNN had purchased a massive industrial washing machine into which its reporters inserted their stories to receive their political “spin.” Despite its unquestionably satirical nature, Snopes fact-checked the story, finding it obviously false. In turn, this caused Facebook to immediately reduce visibility of the story on its platform and threaten to remove advertising from the website if it continued to post such stories.
Thankfully for the Babylon Bee, the ensuing media coverage led Facebook to reverse its blacklisting of the article. But what options do the rest of the world’s websites and individuals have to contest fact checks that are ill-conceived or mistaken?
Few, as it turns out. For starters, fact checkers themselves don’t make it easy to question their verdicts. Poynter International Fact Checking Network signatories must agree only to have a corrections policy, but no minimum standards are required of those policies. As long as they offer a mechanism to submit corrections requests, fact checkers are considered in compliance, even if they reject all such requests. The lack of an ombudsman or appeals process at most fact checkers means the decision whether to reconsider a verdict is typically left entirely in the original fact checker’s hands.
When asked whether the IFCN had any plans to strengthen its requirements on corrections policies, its director expressed confidence in leaving such decisions exclusively to fact checkers themselves and noted that there were no plans to offer any kind of appeals process.
What happens then when the subject of a contested fact check has their article blacklisted by Facebook and is warned that they may have their advertising stripped as a result of that fact check? Given the substantial monetary damages that a false fact check can cost a website, can they appeal directly to Facebook itself?
Facebook publishes a FAQ page for publishers that outlines the process to contest a fact-check ruling and offers a contact email for each of its fact-checking partners. However, the FAQ notes that “corrections and disputes are processed at the fact-checker's discretion” and that “if your content is rated by multiple organizations, you may need to contact each fact-checker.” Even more ominously, the company notes that “abuse of the corrections and disputes process will be penalized” without clarifying what precisely constitutes “abuse.”
Asked whether Facebook itself offers an appeals process for cases where a fact-checking site refuses to change its ruling, a company spokesperson confirmed that Facebook leaves all corrections decisions exclusively in the hands of the original fact checker. When asked whether it would intervene in extraordinary cases, such as when there is overwhelming evidence contradicting a verdict, the company confirmed that all decisions are left to the fact checkers, regardless of circumstance.
In short, through the business decision of a single Silicon Valley corporation, fact checkers have been elevated from helpful reference librarians into a position of ultimate arbitrator of truth in our online world, without the attendant checks and balances to mitigate abuse. Without action by IFCN or Facebook to establish a centralized appeals process, the only recourse a website has today against a false fact-check verdict is to sue for the monetary damages the resulting Facebook blacklist causes them. Welcome to our Orwellian world of “truth” as brought to you by a few hundred journalists with the unfettered power to control what you can see or share online.