Research: Facebook fact-checking system “vulnerable” to bias and abuse
By Michael Alexander // Sep 30, 2020

American newspaper and media fact-checker USA Today may need to brush up on history, according to journalism watchdog and think tank MRC NewsBusters, after the former flagged several news items and memes on Facebook as “false.”


One of the items in question, as highlighted by the Right-leaning media watchdog, was a meme about Democrats holding what is considered to be the longest filibuster in the United States' history, which was done in order to stall the passing of the Civil Rights Act.

According to the Facebook meme, which was shared by approximately a thousand users, 21 Democrat senators, along with six Republicans – all of whom were from Southern or border states – filibustered for 75 days.

As “fact-checked” by USA Today, however, the senators in question, which included Albert Gore Sr. of Tennessee and Strom Thurmond – who eventually switched parties and became a staunch Republican – only filibustered for 60 days, and not 75 as reported in the meme. USA Today then flagged it as “partly false,” which caused the post to be partially obscured with a warning.

“It is true that the Democrats hold the record for the longest filibuster. But there are a couple of aspects of the exact claim that are false or misleading. It wasn't 75 days long; it lasted only 60 days,” the newspaper said in a post.

Another “fact-check” questioned by the MRC involved an article by USA Today that claims that the Democratic Party did not start the Civil War and later on, the hate group known as Ku Klux Klan (KKK).

The article was a response to social media posts that claimed Democrats were responsible for the destructive war, which resulted in over 620,000 deaths and the creation of the notorious white supremacist hate group. (Related: Left-wing media’s “fact-checkers” are even MORE biased than the media outlets they represent.)

“Friendly reminder that if you support the Democrat Party, you support the party that founded the KKK and start a civil war to keep their slaves," a post shared by Instagram user @snowflake.tears said.

Pointing to historical accounts, USA Today noted that while factions of the Democratic Party did indeed contribute to the Civil War's start, as well as the founding of the KKK, it remains largely “inaccurate” to say that the party as a whole was responsible for either.

Citing Tera Hunter, a Professor of American History at Princeton University, the paper noted that the assertions aired by the original social media posts are commonly used to discredit the current policies of the Democratic Party.

“At the core of the effort to discredit the current Democratic Party is the refusal to accept the realignment of the party structure in the mid-20th century,” Hunter said.

The MRC, however, finds fault in this, noting that Hunter is also known to be a donor to the Democratic Party, thus making her accounts biased.

USA Today gets a Democratic donor to defend the party against its true, racist past,” the media watchdog said in its rebuttal.

According to the MRC, USA Today’s treatment of the KKK’s history is virtually the same, with facts concerning the hate group’s founding deliberately worded so as to shift the blame only to certain people.

"Experts agree the KKK attracted many ex-Confederate soldiers and Southerners who opposed Reconstruction, most of whom were Democrats," the paper said in its article, citing Jon Grinspan who is the curator of political and military history at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History.

According to Grinspan, during the time of its founding, the KKK functioned almost like a paramilitary organization meant to benefit one party, with that party being the Democrats.

Grinspan noted, however, that despite their shared history, “the KKK isn’t the Democratic Party, and that the Democratic Party isn’t the KKK” – a line that USA Today ran with in its purportedly fact-checked story.

How reliable is Facebook’s fact-checking program?

Aside from being one of the leading middle-market newspapers in the country, USA Today is also a third-party fact-checker for social media giant Facebook, alongside other publications and news outfits, all of which have been certified through the non-partisan International Fact-Checking Network, which was started by the non-profit journalism school and research organization Poynter.

As fact-checkers, these media groups are expected to independently review, rate and verify news content on Facebook and its image-sharing sister site Instagram to help prevent the spread of false information on the popular social media platforms.

According to Facebook, stories flagged by these fact-checkers will often come with tags warning readers of their spurious content whenever they are published or linked to on the platform.

However, as pointed out by researchers from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), this method of presenting fact-checked articles may, in fact, be doing more harm than good.

As described in the study, which has been published in the journal Management Science, Facebook’s current method of warning readers has one unintended yet dangerous side effect: the notion of “implied truth,” wherein people believe stories that haven’t been marked as more accurate – even when they are completely false.

“This is one of those things where once you point it out it looks obvious in retrospect,” David Rand, an associate professor of management science at MIT Sloan Scool of Management who led the study, said.

“When you start putting warning labels on some things, it makes everything else seem more credible,” says Rand. We have a false sense of security because we might assume something was fact-checked when it wasn’t at all,” Rand, a brain and cognitive sciences expert, said, describing their findings as “disquieting.”

Baybars Orsek, the director of the International Fact-Checking Network, has since responded to the study by Rand and his colleagues.

“I respect the criticism and the suggestions a lot but claiming that users believe/share more when something is not fact-checked, does seem to sacrifice the role and the value of fact-checking for Facebook’s policies and journalism’s scalability issues,” Orsek posted on Twitter.

Unfortunately, boosting “implied truth” was not the only thing that the social media platform’s fact-checking program got wrong – its very nature also makes it vulnerable to getting hijacked for political purposes.

According to journalist Judd Legum, Facebook grants its fact-checkers – some of whom belong to corporate media outfits allied with political parties – the ability to make arbitrary decisions on what can be considered as “fact.”

In an article for Popular Information, Legum highlighted a recent incident wherein Check Your Fact – a fact-checking group linked to conservative and Right-leaning website The Daily Callerflagged an article by Politico that recounted an incident in which President Donald Trump purportedly told attendees at a South Carolina rally to “treat coronavirus as a ‘hoax.’”

Check Your Fact, Legum said, defended its flagging of the Politico article by explaining that Trump was actually referring to the alleged politicizing of the coronavirus by Democrats as “their new hoax” and not the actual coronavirus itself.

According to Legum, however, this is a case of Check Your Fact using its power to push an interpretation favored by Trump, who previously made claims downplaying the threat of the coronavirus.

Liberal media has been found guilty of this as well – as shown by the two USA Today stories called out by the MRC.

This is particularly troublesome, since, according to a survey carried by Zignal Labs, 86 percent of American citizens do not fact-check the information they read on social media platforms, while 61 percent habitually share, comment and like posts recommended by their friends rather than checking the accuracy and correctness of the news at hand.

Sources include: 1 1 2 2

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