The first danger in Facebook fact-checking is our forgetfulness.
News stays news for only so long because humans are creatures of boredom. We crave newness, something that inherently has an expiration date. Take 2016: We remember that a lot of famous people died, but we don’t talk about the individuals anymore. For about a week, it was shocking that Prince died, and then it faded from news cycles. The same goes for Arnold Palmer, Gene Wilder, Muhammad Ali, Alan Rickman, and even an American hero like John Glenn. I bet some of you are remembering their deaths with a pang of sadness — because you forgot.
These are people who shaped the lives of millions, and yet we forget them because we are fickle, and easily excited by whatever news bauble is the shiniest.
Facebook fact-checking will soon fade from news cycles, and that’s when we should worry. It’s a lot easier to get away with censorship and suppression when no one is watching. On top of that, any unsavory fact-checking can be hidden behind the noble guise of preserving truth, facts and good journalism.
There’s already a practical study to solidify concerns of abuse: Remember when Facebook curators routinely suppressed conservative news from the “Trending Topics” portion of the website? We had no idea that was occurring until a disgruntled former contractor spoke out. “Depending on who was on shift, things would be blacklisted or trending,” the former Facebook curator said. “I believe it had a chilling effect on conservative news.”
An important point to note is that Facebook — much like it plans to do with fact-checking — hired out its news curation for its “Trending Topics” to third parties. While third-party fact-checkers will not be paid, the point remains.
Some of the fact-checkers Facebook has brought on raise concerns about impartiality. Snopes and Politifact are two of the organizations assisting Facebook, and both have a history of either outright bias against conservative media or bias for Democratic causes.
Snopes attacked The Daily Caller on multiple occasions, and has gone so far as to lie in its attempts to “debunk” TheDC. When TheDC reported that day one of the Democratic National Convention featured no American flags on the stage, Snopes published an article using pictures of flags from the second day of the convention to make it seem like TheDC was lying.
Snopes attacked The Daily Caller News Foundation when it published an exclusive story on a potential conflict of interest between Secretary of State John Kerry’s Department of State and his daughter Vanessa Kerry’s non-profit, which received millions from the State Department. In its attack, Snopes deliberately omitted key facts and made multiple factual errors.
Politifact went out of its way to clarify President-elect Donald Trump’s claim during the second presidential debate that former Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton laughed at a 12-year-old rape victim. Clinton, Politifact corrected, didn’t laugh at a rape victim, she laughed at getting a rapist off.
How is Facebook going to verify that the people at these outlets doing its fact-checking are unbiased?
Even if you remove malicious intent from fact-checking, there’s still a host of issues that will arise: inattention, laziness, fatigue and rushing are just a few reasons why a fact-checker might verify something as fake news when it actually isn’t.
And once the damage to credibility is done, it can’t be undone.
Media outlets get gargantuan amounts of traffic from Facebook, and if Facebook inaccurately labels an outlet’s story as fake news, it could have a severe impact on traffic. Does Facebook have a plan in place for restoring credibility to outlets once their reputations are damaged? Will outlets have any recourse? What happens to fact-checkers when they create fake news by labeling truthful stories as fake news?
If Facebook keeps fact-checking as a permanent part of its news policy, censorship will happen. Conservatives will be understandably enraged, Trump will retaliate by going on a tirade against the media, and then everyone will forget that it was the fault of biased fact-checkers in the first place.