A growing response to today’s chaotic information landscape sounds inviting and elegantly simple: appoint experts to “fact-check” news stories, blogs, speeches, studies, opinions, and political ads. Information they deem to be false is corrected or even removed from public view, in the name of the public good.
Since Donald Trump’s election these “fact-checkers” have gained increased prominence. Pressure has mounted for news outfits and big tech companies – including Google, Facebook, and Twitter – to police political discourse. At the same time, many people, notably conservatives, are demanding that the tech giants back off such perceived censorship. Tensions on both sides were on display last week as a House Judiciary subcommittee grilled top Silicon Valley executives.
That discord is likely to persist because in large part the fact-checking solution is illusory. Many such efforts fail because they amount to a circular feedback loop of verification. The fact-checkers are like-minded journalists or often liberal Silicon Valley gatekeepers, who frequently rely on partisan news sources and political activists to control narratives on a wide variety of issues and controversies. This small group of players exerts an oversized influence, using fact checks to shape and censor information.
Twitter recently sparked controversy by taking the unprecedented step of adding a disapproving “fact-checking label” to some of President Trump’s tweets. The social media site publicly explained that Trump’s May 26 posts contained what its fact-checkers deemed to be “potentially misleading information about voting processes.”
Trump had said widespread mail-in ballots in the 2020 election would be “substantially fraudulent.” While the definition of “substantially” is in the eye of the beholder, the United States, in fact, has a long and ongoing history of ballot fraud.
Nevertheless, Twitter’s label warned that Trump’s claims were “unsubstantiated according to CNN, Washington Post, and others … Experts say mail-in ballots are very rarely linked to voter fraud.”
Related: Facebook Fact-Check Board's Many Soros Friends Sharyl Attkisson, RCI
Like many questionable “fact checks” at issue, Twitter’s critique wasn’t really a fact check at all. It used past reporting from selected partisan news sources to claim that a prediction about what could happen in the future is untrue -- before it even happens or doesn’t happen. It was, in short, a Democratic Party talking point.
Google has stoked criticism for inserting its judgment and opinions between internet users and their search results. In February, the search engine announced it was fighting “disinformation” about coronavirus by partnering with the World Health Organization (WHO). Google explained that user searches about COVID-19 would be directed to WHO’s online information. One big problem: WHO itself was guilty of factual misinformation in multiple instances. For example, the agency admitted it had wrongly called the global risk of the virus emanating from China virus “moderate” at a time when it had actually been “very high.”
Critics say the partnership with WHO reflects a trend by Big Tech fact-checkers to present often controversial global organizations as nonpartisan purveyors of objective fact.
Over at Facebook, censorship of accounts and ideas has included a fact check of a documentary about the lab in Wuhan, China, that was under investigation as a possible source of the COVID-19 outbreak. Facebook claimed the documentary was “false.” But an investigation by this reporter revealed that one of the authorities Facebook referenced in discrediting the documentary was a scientist who worked at the Wuhan lab.
Facebook did not respond to an emailed request for an interview with CEO Mark Zuckerberg or a representative.
Who’s Pulling Strings and Calling Shots?
Fact-checking organizations have grappled internally with the obvious but usually unspoken challenge in all such efforts: It is unrealistic to expect that any appointed group of fact-checkers has true expertise on all of the topics they litigate. Yet they do so every day.
As the labels applied to the Trump tweets illustrate, today’s brand of “fact-checking” is rarely cut and dry, such as verifying the date an event occurred. Now, fact checks are frequently used to litigate matters of opinion or debate, and to proclaim the truth about facts that are unknown, or cannot possibly be known, at the time. They commonly provide what they call the “context” they claim is necessary to assess a factual claim, rather than a simple assessment of whether a statement is correct or incorrect. As a result, many factually correct statements are deemed to be “half true” or “mostly false.”
Keeping this in mind, the biggest inherent flaw with efforts to fact-check information may lie in the qualifications, bias, and conflicts of interest among the ranks of the fact-checkers themselves. One example is the fact-checking nonprofit First Draft, started by Google at the beginning of the 2016 election cycle. Google is owned by Alphabet, Inc. Alphabet executives and employees comprise a politically active group that ranks among the largest political donors to Democrats in the country. During the 2016 campaign, Alphabet was led by an ardent Hillary Clinton supporter and campaign volunteer, executive chairman Eric Schmidt.
First Draft is also supported by an array of liberal companies and nonprofits, including the Ford Foundation and George Soros’ Open Society Foundations. First Draft tends to fact-check topics in a vein that’s consistent with its major donors’ opinions and interests. This is particularly true when it comes to controversies about vaccine safety and climate change, where First Draft appears to give little consideration to opposing scientific views and information. In April, First Draft uncritically referred readers to an article perpetuating the false story that President Trump had literally encouraged “people to drink bleach.” Among the group’s original organizers is its digital director, Alastair Reid, who has frequently tweeted and retweeted anti-American rhetoric and progressive positions.
For its part, First Draft says “certain projects and initiatives may be guided in part by the specific requirements of our funding partnerships” but “our donors understand that First Draft retains operational and editorial independence. Our decisions are driven by the organization’s mission and values.”
Similar issues surround NewsGuard, an Internet browser tool that rates the trustworthiness of news sources on search engines and social media sites. Created in 2018, it is funded in part by one of the largest PR, advertising, and data collection firms in the world: Publicis Groupe. Publicis is active on the progressive side of major issues and controversies from gender to race and climate.
NewsGuard states that besides its founders Steven Brill and Gordon Crovitz, “other investors play no role in the determination of ratings.” Its analysts have given a green light of trust to openly partisan sources such as Media Matters for America.
Last November, NewsGuard reached out to RealClearInvestigations, questioning its use of anonymous sources to reveal the identity of an intelligence community “whistleblower” whose allegations helped lead to Trump’s impeachment. But when RealClearInvestigations asked NewsGuard if it was posing similar queries about use of anonymous leaks by other news organizations, such as the New York Times, Washington Post, CNN, NBC, and BuzzFeed, NewsGuard did not reply.
The clearest example of conflicts in play regarding fact checks may be found by examining Facebook’s new oversight board, which was recently created to temper criticism over its decisions to flag certain content and accounts. According to Facebook, members of the oversight board “were chosen for their expertise and diversity” and “must not have actual or perceived conflicts of interest that could compromise their independent judgment and decision-making.” They all “have expertise in, or experience in advocating for, human rights.”
But 18 of the 20 members of Facebook’s oversight board members have ties to Soros’ Open Society Foundations, which have spent billions of dollars on global initiatives aggressively advocating for the progressive side on topics ranging from immigration policy and climate to abortion, gender, and racial policies.
The pervasive Soros connections on Facebook’s oversight board may be no more than a matter of odds. Soros is such a prolific financier among global groups that advocate for positions he supports, that his name is bound to turn up when the chosen fact checkers are primarily activists and advocates for progressive positions. The result is a group whose expressed viewpoints and causes are far from neutral. By contrast, however, no members of the Facebook board have known public positions on the conservative side of hot-button controversies.
One measure of the problems in “objective” fact-checking is the vastly disparate treatment accorded two of the most established partisan outfits – the conservative Media Research Center and the liberal Media Matters.
Founded in 1987 by Brent Bozell, the Media Research Center, characterizes itself as a media watchdog, and uses a blog called “Newsbusters” to call out what it views as liberal bias in the mainstream media.
Media Matters is a nonprofit founded in 2004 by right-wing operative-turned-left-wing operative David Brock as a counterpoint to Media Research Center. Today, it’s linked to a web of political action committees, nonprofits, LLCs and other groups that partner to advance their agendas in the news.
So the two groups are bookends in the increasingly partisan media landscape. But they are not treated the same by the so-called objective press. The liberal Media Matters is is frequently relied upon by journalism organizations and the mainstream media as if it were an accurate, nonpartisan source of news and information. An extensive search found no such treatment accorded to the Media Research Center. The credibility afforded to Media Matters by some appears to have evolved over time. Back in 2009, the Columbia Journalism Review called out Media Matters for a “falsehood,” citing a deceptive claim and press release. But fast forward to June 4, 2020 and an article in the same publication places Media Matters’ “editor-at-large” Parker Molloy among a group of “journalists, legal analysts and other experts” -- without disclosing the controversial group’s partisan affiliation. The article goes on to quote Molloy as claiming there is “honestly no reason to believe there’s some sort of liberal/progressive bias at social-media companies.” She adds, “Conservatives are really just trying to ‘work the refs’ as a way to push these companies into adopting a pro-conservative bias.”
What to Do?
Democrats and Republicans alike have stepped forward to say they have issues with some of today’s fact-checking and censorship efforts ahead of the 2020 election. But they differ on which political side they think has the edge, or what should be done about it.
Democrats tend to press for more censorship. Republicans are pushing to lift liability protections for social media platforms that engage in heavy-handed tactics to limit or shape content. The Department of Justice recently issued recommendations to reform the law. It includes ideas to strengthen censorship of content deemed harmful, providing transparency regarding the decisions, and addressing the concentration of information in the hands of just a few.
Sens. John Thune, a South Dakota Republican, and Brian Schatz, a Democrat from Hawaii, recently introduced the bipartisan Platform Accountability and Consumer Transparency Act, or the PACT Act. It would require Google, Facebook, Twitter and other online platforms to disclose their practices when it comes to how they shape and moderate content. It would also subject them to certain civil lawsuits they are currently exempted from.
On the other hand, eliminating liability protections could result in furthering the public perception that Big Tech is controlling what they are allowed to see and read, as companies could reasonably argue that they would have a heightened obligation to censor even more information due to the risk of being sued.
For now, the trend to “fact-checking” information the public accesses online and on the news is gaining momentum approaching the 2020 election. The evidence indicates the backgrounds and interests of those involved in the effort are serving to complicate rather than purify an increasingly fact-challenged information landscape.
Correction: Aug. 5, 2020; 2:45 PM Eastern
Because of an editing error, an earlier version of this article misidentified Parker Molloy, a woman, using the pronoun "he" on a subsequent reference.