Was Facebook's Suppression of News Story Fair Play?

Was Facebook's Suppression of News Story Fair Play?
AP Photo/Patrick Sison, File
Was Facebook's Suppression of News Story Fair Play?
AP Photo/Patrick Sison, File
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While browsing Facebook recently, I happened upon a post by conservative writer Brandon Weichert. He shared a screen capture of a warning he had been issued by Facebook when trying to share a news article from the Daily Wire, a site owned by conservative pundit Ben Shapiro. The warning read that “additional reporting” had been done on the piece in the form of “independent fact checking” by Snopes.com. Snopes had come to the conclusion that the Daily Wire’s article had a misleading headline. Taken aback by this intrusion, Weichert posted, “If this happens again, I am likely deleting my Facebook because it’s straight outta Orwell.”

We have written previously at Fact Check Review about the powers of censorship afforded to fact-checking outfits. This authority stems from the fact checkers’ relationship with Facebook, which uses them to help stop the spread of fake news. If one of six independent fact-checking organizations deems a story to be dubious, users are warned against sharing the story. If they choose not to heed Facebook’s warning, shared pieces are down-ranked in Facebook’s mysterious algorithm so that other users are unlikely to ever see them.

Staunching the spread of false information is a noble aim, but can the process always be trusted? An examination of the circumstances surrounding the story that Weichert tried to share suggests otherwise.

The Daily Wire piece in question, written by Joseph Curl, is headlined “Disabled Vet Can't Vote After NBC Sets Up Camera in Handicapped Parking Space, Refuses to Move.” Curl described the travails of James Berrie, a disabled U.S. Air Force veteran whose attempt to vote was hampered by the presence of a TV news crew that had set up in the one handicapped parking spot at Berrie’s polling place. The crew refused to move until they completed their shot. Curl’s reporting was based on sources including a Facebook post written by Berrie, an interview Berrie gave recounting the incident, and a tweet from an MSNBC reporter apologizing on Twitter for making “the wrong call” by setting up in the parking spot.

Dan MacGuill of Snopes evaluated the piece, giving it a rating of “Mixture.” MacGuill offered the reasonable defense for this verdict that the Daily Wire “faithfully reported the account presented by Berrie in a viral 30 October Facebook post, but the claim in their headline -- that he was prevented from voting -- was untrue and was contradicted in the body of the article itself.” He tempered this by adding that “Berrie’s account was somewhat inconsistent in one respect: on one hand, he wrote that ‘If I couldn’t park, I couldn’t vote,’ which may have given rise to the claim that he had been prevented from voting.”

MacGuill’s assessment and verdict are eminently reasonable. I am not generally a fan of “Mixture” or “Half True” verdicts, which can be used to append extraneous information to claims that are simply true, but such mischief is not at hand in this case. The meat of the Daily Wire story is true, but the headline is not. A reader should take both of these things into consideration. Therefore, the verdict of “Mixture,” while imperfect, was fairly applied by MacGuill in this case.

I told him so during a cordial email exchange, but noted that the Facebook warning against sharing the piece, quite possibly suppressing it from being seen by readers, did not seem in step with his evenhanded verdict. I asked MacGuill if he could comment on the nature of Snopes’ relationship with Facebook and whether all pieces given the “Mixture” rating garnered a warning and down-ranking. MacGuill told me that he would forward my query to his editors, who did not respond.

An email sent to Snopes via a generic contact form netted a press account response that I “would need to contact Facebook for details on how Facebook's efforts to reduce the propagation of misinformation on Facebook affects the reach of articles posted to Facebook.”

So I contacted the social media company. A press aide named Lauren Svensson confirmed for me that “notifying people who are trying to share content that has been rated ‘False,’ ‘Mixture,’ or ‘False Headline’ is standard practice and is not done on a case-by-case basis.” She laid out a three-step process that is followed in such instances. Facebook does “reduce the distribution” of such content in users’ news feeds, although pieces that garner the “Mixture” or “False Headline” ratings are less severely impacted. Facebook also shows a “related articles unit” next to that content where it still appears in users’ news feeds, and of course it notifies users “of additional reporting on that content when they try to share it, or if they’ve shared it previously,” the term of art for the warning that Weichert encountered.

Svensson sent me samples of this warning, and pointed out that while they mention that additional reporting has been done, they do not characterize the original reporting as “unreliable.” This is consistent with the language in the screen grab posted by Weichert.

So there you have it. Facebook prevents users from seeing stories that receive a “Mixture” rating, although this treatment is purportedly less harsh than for those articles deemed outright false. I asked Svensson if she could quantify the reduction in readership, but have not heard back.

The significance of all of this is in the eyes of the beholder, but in the case of a substantively true article like the Daily Wire piece, it rings of undue censorship to us. Or, as Weichert put it, “straight outta Orwell.”

Bill Zeiser is editor of RealClearPolitics Fact Check Review.

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