June 10, 2021

Factually is a newsletter about fact-checking and misinformation from Poynter’s International Fact-Checking Network. Sign up here to receive it on your email every Thursday.

What’s the harm?

Last week’s announcement by Facebook that it would keep former U.S. President Donald Trump off the platform for another two years also included a few tweaks to the way the platform moderates speech by political leaders. It laid out a more concrete explanation of how it would punish political leaders who violate platform policies during “times of civil unrest and ongoing violence,” and promised to speed up its review of potentially violating content during these designated periods.

Missing from the announcement was any change to the exemption that bars its Third-Party Fact-Checking partners to fact-check the posts of political leaders. (Full Disclosure: Facebook requires its fact-checking partners to be verified signatories of the International Fact-Checking Network’s Code of Principles).

Facebook has long argued that political leaders are some of the most scrutinized figures in society, and reasoned that they should be exempt from fact-checking so as to not limit their speech and deprive citizens of hearing from their elected officials. However, Facebook acknowledged in its statement that “public figures often have broad influence across our platform and may therefore pose a greater risk of harm when they violate our Community Standards or Community Guidelines.”

Fact-checkers and researchers have cited this harm in the past as an argument for why Facebook should remove its fact-checking exemption for politicians. In fact, we talked about this in the Factually edition that followed the Oversight Board’s decision in early May.

Responding to reports about this most recent announcement, Gordon Farrer, chief academic investigator for the Australian outlet RMIT ABC Fact Check, argued the ban should be lifted to help improve the public discourse.

“Everyone needs to agree on the set of facts used in public debate — especially during election campaigns — otherwise people from different ends of the political spectrum are unable to understand each other’s worldview,” Farrer said. “Facts are crucial to that discourse, and reputable journalism — especially journalism conducted by reliable, trusted fact-checkers — is a necessary part of establishing those facts.”

However, Facebook’s exemption may (unintentionally) protect fact-checkers from the political fallout of their work being attached to a politician’s post. Fact-checkers in Brazil are facing legal battles over their fact-checks of publications viewed as deferential to the current government; and Twitter, while not a fact-checker, got a visit from police in India for merely labeling a ruling party spokesperson’s tweet.

Still, fact-checkers have argued that everyone’s speech should be treated equally on social media regardless of political status. As Jency Jacob, managing editor of the Indian fact-checking outlet BOOM, put it, “Our fact-checking principles do not change and remain the same for everyone.”

Interesting fact-checks

Screenshot by India Today

  • India Today “This is not the Azerbaijan President touching a woman in viral video” (in English)
    • A video of an elder gentleman inappropriately touching a female colleague went viral in India this week with some claiming this was the president of Azerbaijan. After some digging, India Today discovered it wasn’t the president, but rather an Azerbaijani member of parliament caught during a Zoom conference. The man was forced to resign after the video was made public.
  • Verificado “The video about electoral ballots circulating on social networks is false” (in Spanish)
    • In the lead-up to elections in Mexico over the weekend, a video claiming to show pre-marked ballots and alleging electoral fraud went viral on social media. It turns out this was a zombie hoax from the 2018 election season intended to call into question the legitimacy of Mexican election authorities. Verificado also pointed out that the ballots were missing some of the political parties participating in this year’s elections.

Quick hits

AP Photo/Manish Swarup

From the news: 

  • “Posing as Patriots,” from Graphika. In an investigation of alternative social media apps such as Gab and Parler, Graphika’s team uncovered an effort by suspected Russian actors to influence far-right politics by posing as Americans and seeding disinformation narratives. According to Graphika’s analysis, however, it wasn’t very effective.
  • “Europe’s latest export: A bad disinformation strategy,” from Politico.eu. Africa Check founder and IFCN advisory board member Peter Cunliffe-Jones identifies three major flaws in the European Union’s proposed legislation to tackle misinformation, along with three possible solutions.
  • “China spread disinformation videos on Uyghur Muslims two years ago. YouTube let them stay up,” from USA Today. Bellingcat uncovered a five-part YouTube series on a channel with connections to the Chinese government, which sought to paper over the Chinese government’s treatment of Uyghur Muslims in Xinjiang. YouTube declined to take down the videos, reasoning they did not violate its terms of service. However, the channel that posted the videos took them down in response to USA Today’s inquiry.
  • “India Demands Social Media Firms Help It Track Misinformation Online,” from NPR. The Indian government is taking an increasingly aggressive approach towards content takedowns on social media in the wake of new rules governing online speech. It’s part of a larger trend among governments looking to pressure tech platforms on content moderation decisions.

From/for the community: 

Events & Trainings

IFCN promotional photo

  • June 15IFCN Talks #6: How to fact-check an election — Lessons from around the world: Ghana Fact managing editor Rabiu Alhassan, Agência Lupa business and strategy director Gilberto Scofield Jr., and Rappler head of digital strategy Gemma Mendoza join us to talk about their experiences fact-checking elections. They’ll discuss best practices as well as common pitfalls to watch out for. Sign up here.
  • June 23IFCN Talks #7: Lessons of Squash, Duke’s groundbreaking automated fact-checking platform: The Duke Reporters’ Lab is wrapping up its automated fact-checking project “Squash,” and will be joining IFCN Talks to discuss the promises and pitfalls of the project, as well as where automated fact-checking will go from here. Sign up here.

If you are a fact-checker and you’d like your work/projects/achievements highlighted in the next edition, send us an email at factually@poynter.org by next Tuesday.

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Harrison Mantas is a reporter for the International Fact-Checking Network covering the wide world of misinformation. He previously worked in Arizona and Washington D.C. for…
Harrison Mantas

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  • “Missing from the announcement was any change to the exemption that bars its Third-Party Fact-Checking partners to fact-check the posts of political leaders.”

    But that’s not entirely accurate, is it?

    Facebook’s fact-checking partners are apparently permitted to fact check anything published on Facebook by anybody, including politicians. The exemption seems to concern only fact-checking that Facebook pays for through the partnerships. That’s the fact-checking Facebook uses to justify decisions it makes limiting the reach of posts or parties (censorship).

    If fact checkers merely want to fact check what politicians post to Facebook, apparently nobody is stopping them. The Facebook exemption keeps the fact-checking partners from sharing Facebook’s power to censor.

    Why is it so hard for fact checkers to report on this accurately?