Facebook's Evidence-Free 'False' Rating

Facebook's Evidence-Free 'False' Rating
(AP Photo/Terry Chea)
Facebook's Evidence-Free 'False' Rating
(AP Photo/Terry Chea)
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As social media platforms rely ever more heavily on outside parties to arbitrate what is “true,” one prominent journalist’s recent experience with Facebook’s COVID-19 fact-checking efforts reminds us just how questionable -- and unaccountable -- the fact-checking landscape can be.

Last month, Emmy Award-winning investigative journalist Sharyl Attkisson shared a video by The Epoch Times exploring what is known about the origins of the coronavirus. Shortly thereafter she was notified by Facebook that it had reduced the visibility of the post because “it was rated False by an independent fact-checker.” The platform also notified Attkisson’s followers that they had shared “false news” and warned that further sharing of it would result in “their overall distribution reduced, their ability to monetize and advertise removed and their ability to register as a news page removed” and that “people will be able to see if a page has a history of sharing false news.”

Yet the fact check that Facebook cited as the basis of its false rating makes no mention of the Epoch Times video at all. Instead, it is a fact check by Facebook partner Health Feedback of an opinion piece in The New York Post presenting the author’s theory that the virus might have escaped from a lab at the Wuhan Institute of Virology.

Despite Facebook’s requirement that fact checkers assign a rating of “Opinion” to commentary pieces, Health Feedback assigned a rating of “False.”

It is not until midway down the page that the fact check acknowledges that The New York Post contacted the site after publication to note that the piece in question was an opinion column and thus not eligible for fact checking. Despite this clarification, the rating remained unchanged.

Asked how Facebook resolves situations where a fact checker violates its own ratings guidelines, the company would confirm only that Health Feedback is one of its partners and that there is no direct recourse in matters of this kind. In this particular case, however, Facebook eventually relented and unflagged the article after weeks of requests by the Post.

Why did the fact checker not recognize that this was an opinion piece? Contrary to traditional journalistic practice in which reporters are required to give the subject of a story an opportunity to respond, fact checking is largely performed “from afar” with fact checkers passing judgment on an article without ever contacting the author seeking comment or clarification, which in this case should have clarified that the piece under review was an opinion column.

Who were the fact checkers reviewing the claims in the Post commentary?

The primary reviewer, whose input constituted much of the fact check, is far from a neutral and disinterested third party. She notes that “I have worked in this exact laboratory at various times for the past 2 years” and that “it is difficult to respond to this article because it is infuriating on a personal … level.”

Permitting individuals so closely associated with a story to pass judgment on it presents, at best, the appearance of a conflict of interest and, at worst, undercuts the perceived neutrality of Facebook’s fact- checking partnerships. This same fact checker dismissed as false the article’s concerns of biosecurity problems at the Wuhan facility, stating she “can personally attest” to those security measures. Though the checker’s insider status might seem to confer reliability on her assessment, the fact check has never been updated to acknowledge subsequent reporting by the Washington Post of U.S. government concerns regarding those same security measures.

The second reviewer dismisses the article’s claims because “any responsible government” would not allow a virus to escape their facility.

Despite describing itself as a scientific fact-checking organization, Health Feedback justified its “False” rating by noting, “[W]hile the possibility of a lab accident is currently being investigated, as of now there is no evidence confirming” the theories in the Post commentary. Yet a central premise of the scientific method is that one cannot prove a claim is false merely by citing a lack of evidence to either support or refute it. In this case, the only scientifically supported rating would be “Unknown” since, at this time, there is insufficient evidence to derive any conclusion.

Asked about these issues, Health Feedback did not respond.

The end result is a reporter publicly attacked for sharing “false” news on the judgment of two university professors, one of whom worked at the facility in question, who based their rating on the lack of sufficient evidence to draw any conclusion.

Despite their ever-growing power, it seems so-called fact checkers are struggling to stick with the facts.

RealClear Media Fellow Kalev Leetaru is a senior fellow at the George Washington University Center for Cyber & Homeland Security. His past roles include fellow in residence at Georgetown University’s Edmund A. Walsh School of Foreign Service and member of the World Economic Forum’s Global Agenda Council on the Future of Government.

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