January 25, 2019

If it weren’t for a glitch in Facebook’s fact-checking partnership, one of this week’s biggest viral hoaxes might not have reached as many people.

In Brazil, a false meme posted Jan. 14 that claimed a federal judge ordered prisons to remove power outlets got nearly 200,000 engagements on Facebook. That’s in spite of two debunks published days later by fact-checkers at Aos Fatos and Agência Lupa, which both partner with Facebook to find, debunk and decrease the reach of misinformation on the platform.

Per that partnership, once a fact-checker rates a story, image or video as false, its future reach in the News Feed decreases by up to 80 percent; the fact check appears in a “Related Articles” section below the hoax; and users receive a warning before sharing it. (Disclosure: Being a signatory of the International Fact-Checking Network’s code of principles is a necessary condition for joining the project.) 

But a glitch in the system has been letting users share some bogus images with no warning that they were false.

When Poynter originally shared (and then promptly deleted) the Brazilian hoax for testing purposes earlier this week, we received a warning saying that there was additional reporting from Aos Fatos that debunked the meme. That warning came after trying to share the hoax from a Page-level view of the image.

(Screenshot from Facebook)

After Poynter published a story with those findings, Agência Lupa tried to replicate the results. The project told us that they’d flagged at least 138 links that also included the false meme, so it was weird that their fact check wasn’t showing up.

What they found was even more concerning: When trying to share the false post from a post-level view instead of from a Page or the News Feed, users don’t receive a notification at all.

When Poynter tried to share the same hoax from that view, which is the default for a direct link to a Facebook post, there was no related fact check appended and we didn’t receive any kind of warning.

(Screenshot from Facebook)

We were able to share (and promptly delete) the post unabated.

(Screenshot from Facebook)

Poynter tested several other images flagged as false by fact-checkers in recent weeks and found the same bug in the warning system. In all cases, the hoax had more engagements on Facebook than the fact checks.

Poynter reached out to Facebook about the glitch, which Lupa first pointed out. A spokesperson told us in an email that the company is working on extending the fact check warning to the post-level view, but that it’s not quite in place yet.

As for why Aos Fatos’ debunk would show up when trying to share the false Brazilian meme and Lupa’s wouldn’t, Facebook said that different fact-checkers debunked variations of the same meme.

“We’ve done a lot of work to cluster duplicate content, whether in links or native content like photos and videos,” the spokesperson said in an email. “At the same time, small variations can change the meaning — so we work with fact-checkers to get separate ratings on content that is a variation of an existing meme/not an exact duplicate.”

Lupa declined to comment on the record.

Editor’s note: This story has been updated with additional information from Facebook.

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Daniel Funke is a staff writer covering online misinformation for PolitiFact. He previously reported for Poynter as a fact-checking reporter and a Google News Lab…
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