It isn’t clear when the decision was made. But between October 20 and October 31 — right about the time Americans were discussing whether Republicans and Democrats should be allowed to post and promote false content on social media — Facebook came up with a crucial definition for fact-checkers and quietly edited its website.
Now, in a few sentences, the company makes clear what a politician is and reiterates its policy that they can’t be fact-checked.
According to Facebook’s language, politicians are “candidates running for office, current office holders — and, by extension, many of their cabinet appointees — along with political parties and their leaders.”
Why is this definition important? In one way it will help fact-checkers because it defines scope, and is something to point to when they are asked why their fact checks of politicians’ statements or ads are not showing up on Facebook. The company came up with the definition, in fact, because fact-checkers said they wanted more clarity.
But some fact-checkers, especially those operating outside the United States, say the definition of a politician in office or running for office carries some potentially unintended consequences.
For example, not every country has campaigns that take as long as those in the United States. That means office-holders in some places would have a longer window of not being fact-checked than their challengers. And that could provide an advantage to those incumbents.
Some fact-checkers also saw the definition as election-centric. What about politicians who spread misinformation about issues that are not related to their political campaigns and not just during an election? Think about a mayor posting hoaxes about vaccines.
“In Kenya, we think that Facebook’s definition does not adequately cover the likelihood of false information from political actors taking advantage of the lack of oversight,” said Eric Mugendi, from Pesacheck (Kenya). “And we feel that it is heavily inclined towards elections, which happens once in a while. The definition ignores the fact that potentially damaging false content can be produced and shared at any time.”
In addition, some fact-checkers were concerned about the way this definition was rolled out. Finding it, for example, isn’t easy.
First, readers need to reach Facebook’s Media and Publishers’ Help Center. Then, they have to scroll down to the fourth question of a detailed Q&A to finally learn what the platform considers out of scope in the Third Party Fact-Checking Program (Full disclosure: to participate in this project, organizations should be a verified signatory to the IFCN’s Code of Principles).
Once readers (and also fact-checkers) get there, they find out that Facebook has left some room for fact-checkers to make local calls.
“In some cases, we ask fact-checkers to use their expertise and judgment to determine whether an individual is a politician, like in the case of a part-time elected official,” wrote Facebook.
Since 2016, when the Third Party Fact-Checking Program was launched, fact-checkers involved in the project understood that Facebook didn’t want politicians to be fact-checked. But until last month, when there was no clear definition, organizations were able to make their own judgment and decide on this topic on a case by case basis.
Now, in general, fact-checkers are surprised — some by how it was announced, some for its content.
“I wasn’t aware of the fact that Facebook had published a definition like that on its website, even though our partnership with the platform isn’t focused on politicians,” said Joaquin Ortega, the head of content in Newtral (Spain). “It is definitely striking to see that a platform decided to publicly take a position on what a politician is or is not.”
Bal Krishna, who works as an editor for India Today, received the link with the definition from the IFCN and was also surprised by its content.
In an email, he said that despite the amount of “noise” heard around political speech and ads published by some of the U.S politicians, the issue remains “somewhat ambiguous,” and fact-checkers are not very clear about the “finer nuances of this Facebook policy.”
“Hardly anyone knows that in the section ‘help for media and publishers’ on Facebook’s website, it has been described in some detail who qualifies to be a politician and why they have been kept out of the scope.”
Krishna added that he would like to see Facebook talking more frequently and more openly about this definition, too.
Pablo Medina, ColombiaCheck’s editor, said he feels that such important content looks somewhat hidden in a hidden URL. But what worries him the most so far is the definition itself.
“It doesn’t seem clear enough. And I think (non-U.S.) fact-checkers will have to struggle with many gray areas from now on,” he said.
Summer Chen, from the Taiwan Fact-Checker Center is one of the fact-checkers who knew about Facebook’s definition. But just like Medina, she is not fully satisfied with it.
“In Taiwan, we do agree that opinions and future plans/policies can’t be fact-checked. However, we disagree that the facts that politicians use for supporting their speech can’t be checked,” Summer said. “Facebook’s definition of politicians and democratic society is static. Politicians and digital influencers are an ecosystem.”
In an email to the IFCN, Keren Goldshlager, Facebook Integrity Partnerships, said that Facebook heard feedback from the third-party fact-checking partners who said that they need clearer definitions of who qualified as a politician under the guidelines of the program. And this was the reason why the company “recently clarified those guidelines and added them in the Help Center” area of the website.
In the same message, Goldshlager added that her team is “always eager to hear more from our partners on how we can improve transparency.”
Read the Spanish version of this article at Univision.
Cristina Tardáguila is the associate director of the International Fact-Checking Network and the founder of Agência Lupa. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.