Facebook’s fact-checking project sometimes forces hoaxers to change their content

Fact vs. Fake is a weekly column in which we compare the reach of fact checks vs. hoaxes on Facebook. Read all our analyses here.

Much ado has been made about Facebook’s fact-checking partners. Depending on who you ask, the project is either crisis PR for the company or an important way to minimize misinformation’s impact.

It’s true that, generally speaking, fact checks from outlets like (Poynter-owned) PolitiFact struggle to scale to the reach of misinformation on Facebook. But the program, which enables fact-checkers to flag false posts and decrease their future reach in the News Feed, has changed the production of misinformation in ways beyond simple reach. (Disclosure: Being a signatory of the International Fact-Checking Network’s code of principles is a necessary condition for joining the project.)

One of those ways is making hoaxers more responsive to fact checks.

This week, Factcheck.org debunked a much-copied meme that falsely claims United States Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) was once fired from a fast food job for “incompetence.” The article was among the most popular fact checks of the week.

Below is a chart with other top fact checks since last Tuesday in order of how many likes, comments and shares they got on Facebook, according to data from audience metrics tools BuzzSumo and CrowdTangle.

In Factcheck.org’s article, Angelo Fichera reported that the false image, which purports to depict Ocasio-Cortez at a restaurant called Hot Dog on a Stick, was originally published Feb. 9 by the page America’s Last Line of Defense. The original post has since been deleted — and it isn’t the first time the page has done so.

America’s Last Line of Defense is operated by notorious hoaxer Christopher Blair, who publishes satirical content with the goal of tricking conservatives into sharing it. His popular false stories and images have become a major target for American fact-checkers.

Longtime Blair collaborator John Prager told Poynter in August that the reach of all their sites — which, at one point, were racking up about 1 million pageviews per month — had been decimated at the hand of Facebook’s fact-checking project. As a result, Facebook limited its monetization options.

“We do what we do now for free and for fun and because we believe. It’s been like this since about January (2018),” he said at the time.

That’s when America’s Last Line of Defense pivoted to publishing mostly false memes on Facebook, which, at the time, were beyond the scope of Facebook’s fact-checking program. But that changed in September, when Facebook granted fact-checkers the ability to debunk false images and videos in addition to links.

Now, Blair and his comrades have taken to removing and altering memes that are debunked by fact-checkers to comply with Facebook’s standards.

“We are intentionally overreacting to PolitiFact’s threats and overcomplying,” Prager said in a message this week. “Those memes will be repackaged and re-released with ridiculous disclaimers.”

(Old screenshot from America's Last Line of Defense)

The disclaimers have been perhaps the most visible way that America’s Last Line of Defense has reacted to the Facebook fact-checking program. In late 2017, the page and its corresponding sites carried small badges at the footer of each page denoting the content as satire.

But fact-checkers took issue with the fact that the disclaimers were small and out of the way, and Blair’s made-up stories were still being shared as though they were real news stories.

Now that’s changed. On the America’s Last Line of Defense page, there are satire disclaimers in the profile and cover photos as well as the about section.

(Screenshot from Facebook)

“We’re now about 3,000 disclaimers ahead of The Onion, which still fools people on a regular basis,” Prager said. “We’re getting really sick of people pretending that we aren’t easily the most responsible people when it comes to self-identifying as fake just so they have a ‘bad guy.’”

Still, the false memes that Prager and Blair share don’t carry a visually distinct disclaimer.

The blurry line between nefarious fake news stories and satire has been a notorious sticking point for Facebook’s fact-checking partners since the program launched in December 2016. Last March, Snopes, which was then still participating in Facebook’s anti-misinformation program, flagged a clearly satirical article from The Babylon Bee as false.

Facebook later removed the flag after users complained and added more nuance to its fact-checking system by including a verdict of “Satire.” That label does not decrease the reach of such posts in the News Feed.

The muddy distinction between satire and misinformation has also affected how fact-checkers approach false content. This week, Lead Stories published a policy that outlines what it thinks the difference between a fake news story and satire is — and Blair’s sites trend toward the latter.

“Most of Blair’s recent content would need no super visible disclaimer to be rated ‘satire’ under our policy because it pokes fun at people and policies by mocking their vices or ideas and it is clear it is a joke (in most cases),” said Maarten Schenk, director of Lead Stories, in a message. “It still benefits from a fact check though, because often there are (a lot of) people who don’t get the joke.”

America’s Last Line of Defense is the most visible source that has changed the way fact-checking works on Facebook — but it isn’t the only misinforming source to react to the program.

Serial fake news site YourNewsWire used to delete its articles that were debunked by Facebook’s fact-checking partners. Then, it took to just changing the headlines. Finally, it completely rebranded as NewsPunch and changed its domain to get around the flagging system.

While the numerical reach of misinformation on Facebook is an important metric by which to measure the efficacy of the company’s fact-checking project, it’s also important to note when just the presence of fact checks alters the way that bogus claims spread. Because as Facebook continues to iterate and improve its fact-checking project, it will likely only become harder for hoaxers to continue operating unabated on the platform.

UPDATE: This story has been updated with additional context from the fact-checker Lead Stories.

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