Facing criticism from Republican lawmakers for censoring political speech, and from Democrat lawmakers who argue more regulation of speech is required, Facebook has opted in recent years to rely on paid fact-checkers to judge what’s accurate and what’s not.
Last week, Facebook restricted how many people see content from three major conservative commentators. The reason given was that some of their posts were labelled by Facebook’s fact-checkers as lacking context.
The incidents have drawn attention due to the commentators’ influence and the political climate in the lead-up to the presidential election. All three were affected within the same time frame around Oct. 5.
In addition, all three are conservative mainstream media personalities: filmmaker and author Dinesh D’Souza; author and radio personality Mark Levin; and author and TV news personality John Stossel. Together, they have over 5 million followers on Facebook. All three criticized the move as a form of censorship.
Facebook has been ramping up censorship of what its fact-checkers label as false or misleading information. Such content receives a warning label with a link to the fact-check and the content creators’ pages are then throttled, which means fewer people will see their content on their timelines, even if the users subscribed to that content.
“Since we launched our fact-checking program in 2016, we’ve grown our partnerships to include more than 70 organizations around the world, including 10 in the U.S.,” Facebook spokesperson told The Epoch Times in an emailed statement.
“Our ratings are designed to reflect the types of content our fact-checking partners are seeing on our platforms and to help make sure people have more precise information to judge what to read, trust, and share. We’ve built an unmatched program and are committed to continuously improving it, with feedback from our partners and our community.”
The company portrays the fact-checkers as neutral and independent, but they get paid by Facebook, some of their funding disclosures indicate, and are dominated by personnel and entities with left-leaning backgrounds.
The fact-checkers get certified by the International Fact-Checking Network (IFCN), which was almost entirely funded by eBay founder Pierre Omidyar—a major Democrat donor—as well as Google and progressive billionaire George Soros as of last year. Facebook is listed as one of the previous donors.
Facebook said it saves the strongest enforcement measures for posts rated “False” or “Altered.” But the affected users received notices from Facebook that indicate even a “missing context” label results in throttling. Facebook didn’t respond to questions about such restrictions.
The company says “missing context” means “content that may mislead without additional context.” It said it’s up to the fact-checkers to decide what falls into this category.
“This is the kind of censorship conservatives have to deal with,” D’Souza commented in an Oct. 5 tweet, saying Facebook curbed his reach and demonetized his page because of a picture he posted earlier.
The picture included a quote of the Democrat presidential candidate, former Vice President Joe Biden, saying, “Antifa is an idea, not an organization.” Biden was referring to the anarcho-communist group behind much of the violence that has taken place during riots across America in recent months.
The USA Today fact-check said the quote lacked context because “Biden appropriately credited the statement to FBI Director Chris Wray, but [D’Souza’s] claim did not.”
“His own FBI director said—white supremacists. Antifa is an idea not an organization,” Biden said during the Sept. 29 debate with President Donald Trump.
However, that’s not quite what Wray said.
“It’s not a group or an organization. It’s a movement or an ideology—may be one way of thinking of it,” Wray testified to Congress on Sept. 17. He also said that the FBI has seen some Antifa-affiliated people “coalesce regionally into what we refer to or think of as more as small groups or nodes and they’re certainly organized at that level.”
Antifa uses a decentralized and compartmentalized structure based on shared ideology and tactics. Its individual cells communicate with each other and at least some are highly organized, insider accounts indicate.
The fact-check lacks this context. USA Today responded to a request for comment, but didn’t provide one by press time.
The IFCN assessed USA Today earlier this year, saying “the site has almost exclusivley [sic] focused on checking Republican claims” and “the current imbalance does not comply with IFCN guidelines.” But the fact-checker still received a “partially compliant” rating on this point.
Because Republicans hold the White House and some other relevant offices, there are more opportunities to fact-check them, and the president has a “truly remarkable track record for saying things that are not true,” the assessment stated.
“Who fact-checks the fact checkers?” D’Souza asked in an Oct. 5 tweet.
He didn’t respond to a request for an interview.
In an Oct. 5 tweet, Levin posted an image of a notice from Facebook saying his page “has reduced distribution and other restriction because of repeated sharing of false news.”
“It’s a clear effort at censorship. Every link I post is from a legitimate source,” he commented.
“But because so many people are seeing what I’m posting and we’re within weeks of the election it’s clear that Facebook is trying to influence the election’s outcome. It’s also clear Facebook is pushing a leftwing agenda.”
During his podcast later that day, he said Facebook backed down and informed him that his page’s reach would be restored within a few days. It’s not clear why Facebook needed a few days to switch the page back.
Levin didn’t go into much detail about what posts Facebook flagged, but he did say one was fact-checked for lacking context.
“The examples they give are so preposterous,” he said.
While both Levin and D’Souza are firmly in the conservative camp, Stossel, with a more libertarian bent, often criticizes both Democrats and Republicans.
On Oct. 6, he posted a video on YouTube about one of his Facebook posts being slapped with a “Missing Context” label.
The post included his video talking about the recent wildfires in California that included a comment that “bad policies were the biggest cause of this year’s fires, not the slightly warmer climate.”
He found out that the fact-check, done by Climate Feedback, pertained to a different statement—one that is more categorical, but which he never said: “Forest fires are caused by poor management. Not by climate change.”
He followed Facebook’s appeals process and was directed to raise his objection with Climate Feedback. He said he contacted the editor who authored the fact-check, who didn’t respond.
Two of the three expert reviewers Climate Feedback quoted in the fact-check responded to Stossel. They said they didn’t see his video and their judgement pertained to a different piece of content.
Climate Feedback then got back to Stossel, saying the fact-check stands because his video was “representative” of the fact-checked statement. The two reviewers said they backed the decision.
“While the video does mention that climate change plays a role, it emphasizes that poor forest management is the primary cause of increased wildfire activity that we are seeing and minimizes the role of climate,” Zeke Hausfather, one of the reviewers, told Climate Feedback. Hausfather is a research scientist at Berkeley Earth, a California-based nonprofit focused on climate change research.
The fact-check cited a 2016 paper as saying that “human-caused climate change … doubled the cumulative forest fire area since 1984” in the western United States.
That quote, however, lacks context.
The paper acknowledged significant uncertainty in its estimates. Its calculations showed that climate change could have accounted for anywhere between roughly 30-72 percent of the burned area. But the paper also included a more conservative estimate of 12-24 percent.
Moreover, the authors acknowledged that the paper didn’t address the effects of forest management on fires and how it compares to the effects of climate change.
“There are absolutely more fuels in drier forests today as a result of fire suppression practices which likely amplifies the response of these systems to a warmer/drier climate,” said John Abatzoglou, associate professor at University of California Merced and one of the authors, in an email to The Epoch Times.
“I do not think our study adequately separates the various roles played by management vs. climate, but I would gauge that this effect varies across systems and interacts in complex ways.”
Climate Feedback didn’t respond to requests for comment.
Facebook and its chief executive, Mark Zuckerberg, have positioned themselves as an unprecedented influence on the 2020 election. Zuckerberg recently said Facebook and media organizations should brace Americans for delayed election results. He’s also announced new election-related content rules, including a ban on new political and issue ads in the last week before the election.
Zuckerberg and his wife announced in September a $300 million donation to two nonprofits “to promote safe and reliable voting in states and localities during the COVID-19 pandemic.”
Meanwhile, Facebook is running a drive to help 4 million people register and vote this year.