Photo by Torrey Bailey
"Oh my gosh, it just popped up,” said Dr. Rebecca Coates Nee, upon seeing the option to report fake articles on Facebook for the first time. The San Diego State University Journalism and Media Studies professor began listing off ethical concerns, worried about users reporting traditional media organizations the same way as fake news sites.
“Where is it going to stop?” she asked.
On Dec. 15, Facebook announced that “It’s a fake news story” would be an additional option to report posts on a sample size of U.S. accounts. One month later, most American users have this report option, a Facebook official confirmed to CityBeat. And regardless of whether it was written by the mainstream media, a fake site or a blogger, third party fact-checkers are combing through the articles to label them true or false. When found untrue, a red, “Disputed by 3rd Party Fact-Checkers” disclaimer is slapped on the article along with a link explaining the article’s inaccuracies. This watchdog feature is in the hands of five companies Facebook has contracted, without pay, including ABC News, the Associated Press, Factcheck.org, PolitiFact and Snopes, which is a rumor-busting website based in Pacific Beach.
“They rolled it out really fast and figured they’d work out the bugs as they came,” wrote Snopes Managing Editor Brooke Binkowski in an email.
Facebook chose these sites because they’re part of Poynter’s International Fact-Checking Network (IFCN), but CityBeat found that they were certified through a rushed application process to accommodate Facebook’s Dec. 15 announcement. Poynter compressed its original year-long vetting system into a one-week skim that was “a much lighter version of the current checklist” and simply searched for “glaring violations,” wrote International Fact-Checking Network Director and Editor Alexios Mantzarlis in an email. Snopes and Politifact have already started verifying articles even though none of the organizations will be thoroughly evaluated, via the full checklist, until February 28, Mantzarlis said.
A Facebook official also confirmed that ABC News, the Associated Press, Factcheck.org, PolitiFact and Snopes can fact-check stories published by their own organizations. The Society of Professional Journalists National President Lynn Walsh said that even though she trusts these fact-checking organizations, this was a basic conflict of interest.
“It’s something that is in the [Society of Professional Journalists’] ethics code,” Walsh said. “You want to remove any kinds of conflicts of interest. And if it’s completely impossible to remove that conflict, you want to make sure you’re disclosing that conflict.”
Users can see which organization fact checked the article by clicking on the link included with the disclaimer. But, it isn’t clear who at the organizations will verify the information. Aside from Snopes, none of the organizations responded to CityBeat’s questions regarding who was behind the process, whether it be high-level reporters, interns or somewhere in between.
“If you’re sharing any type of story or article now, you have this ability to report it as fake news, and I just don’t know how [the fact-checkers] are going to go about keeping up with that,” Nee said.
Familiar with the limited budget and resource of a newsroom, Walsh was also speculative of how the additional tasks would fit into their workload and whether additional hiring would be necessary.
“When you’re asked to do more, sometimes you can’t always perform at that same level of success or same high level that’s expected when you have to do 10 things instead of five,” she said.
Binkowski said everyone at Snopes is working on the disputed articles because it’s an organization whose primary business is fact-checking anyway.
“None of this stuff is just for Facebook,” she said. “It’s stuff we’d be doing anyway ... There’s so much bullshit out there it’s fucking incredible. It’s so frustrating. I love my job. I love telling people they’re wrong on the internet. I love being that person. It’s something that I’ve come to terms with. I used to say that I wasn’t that kind of person, but I’m totally petty. I’m that asshole, so I might as well harness it for the good.”
There is an element of Facebook’s tactic that she wants to see improved, which would be to broaden the labeling options beyond true, false or undisputed.
“We can’t do mostly true,” Binkowski said. “We can’t do mixture. We can’t do mostly false. We can’t do outdated, and we’re kind of arguing with [Facebook] about that right now.”
She says it’s easy to deem an article false when it’s posted on a site with a satirical content clause, or when a celebrity tweets a video to debunk rumors of their death. However, Binkowski said opinion pieces are case by case scenarios where labeling is determined by the way posts present information.
“What you could potentially see is people’s opinions getting blocked or marked as fake news,” Walsh worries. “I think people would be upset about that and for good reason. We live in a country where you’re able to speak your mind. Granted, Facebook and Twitter do not necessarily have to abide by the Constitution, in a sense, to protect free speech. They’re a company. They can choose to block any speech they want.”
And while all types of articles can be reported, videos are not subject to fake news flagging even though video consumption on Facebook increased 75 percent between 2015 and 2016, and some traditional news organizations posted between five and ten times more short-form video to Facebook within the same year, according to Reuters. Facebook officials did not respond to CityBeat when asked whether the option would be added to video. Walsh, who is also NBC San Diego’s Investigative Executive Producer, said she hopes the social media megasite considers the addition, noting that her own newsroom regularly produces original video content for the site.
“We create specific videos just for Facebook that have the text under it so that when people are scrolling without their volume on, they can see the lower thirds, they can read the text on screen and still understand the story,” she said. “There are so many videos on Facebook that are like that, so without [the ability to report them], you are definitely running the risk of not providing a very sufficient system of reporting fake news.”
Despite her concerns, Walsh said she found Facebook’s plan encouraging. “I think it’s too early to see whether it’s moving in the right direction or the wrong direction.”