July 8, 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.

Who can do what

Former U.S. President Donald Trump is suing Facebook, Twitter and YouTube, claiming he was “censored” by those companies for not extending him the courtesy of consequence-free posting  on their platforms. The complaint, filed Wednesday, alleges the companies used “unconstitutional authority delegated to them by Congress” to deny both Trump and four additional plaintiffs their First Amendment rights.

A suit that made similar allegations against PolitiFact, Science Feedback, the Poynter Institute, Facebook and Mark Zuckerberg was thrown out last week.

Both seem to stem from a misunderstanding of the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution’s protection of freedom of speech. The amendment grants citizens freedom from restrictions on speech that come from the government, not private entities. And as anyone who’s taken a media law class can tell you, there’s a whole host of caveats to that freedom that have been shaped by over 250 years of American jurisprudence.

Looking at the complaint, it’s also clear there’s a fundamental misunderstanding of how Facebook makes content moderation decisions. Trump cited the Facebook Oversight Board’s review of his suspension that criticized the seemingly arbitrary nature by which the company removed him from the platform. Another complainant who was temporarily suspended for sharing anti-mask misinformation said her misunderstanding of the rules prevented her from engaging her network on the platform to find her missing brother.

Fact-checkers working with Facebook similarly suffer from a user misunderstanding of how Facebook moderates content. Many Facebook users see any kind of labeling of their content as censorship. Some take it a step further and say fact-checkers are deliberately censoring their content and limiting their speech.

That’s not how the Third-Party Fact-Checking program works. Justine Isola, Facebook’s head of misinformation policy, explained on a United Facts of America panel that fact-checkers use a portal set up by Facebook to attach their fact checks to posts that have been flagged by either Facebook users or Facebook’s artificial intelligence. (Full Disclosure: Fact-checking organizations are required to be signatories to the International Fact-Checking Network’s Code of Principles to be eligible to partner with Facebook).

Facebook uses the work of its fact-checking partners to train its AI how to recognize similar posts independently. Facebook also uses this work to decide, independent of its fact-checking partners, which posts to remove and which posts to limit distribution.

This isn’t a flawless process. Machine learning technology is only as good as its inputs, and there simply aren’t enough fact checks or fact-checkers to help perfect Facebook’s AI.

The resulting animosity over users having their posts labeled or their distribution limited is putting some fact-checkers at risk, with some facing protests outside their offices and others facing increasingly violent threats.

IFCN director Baybars Örsek announced Wednesday the fact-checking community will band together to address the recent spate of harassment against fact-checkers. But the truth is that much of it stems from a misunderstanding of who has the power to do what to whom.

Interesting fact-checks

By mycteria/ Shutterstock

  • Dubawa: “SATIRE: Mosquitoes Inoculated With Viagra Have Not Escaped From Wuhan Laboratory.” (in English)
    • A forwarded WhatsApp message circulating widely in Sierra Leone used the recent reexamination of the Wuhan lab leak theory to claim a cadre of escaped mosquitos were offering male enhancement to those they were coming in contact with. Dubawa traced the origin of the claim to a satire website advertising itself as a place “where facts don’t matter.”
  • Lead Stories: “The Right To Vote Is NOT Exclusive To Men And Women Under The U.S. Constitution” (in English)
    • A post containing an edited “Peanuts” cartoon falsely claimed that the wider social acceptance of varied gender identities will limit some Americans’ right to vote. Lead Stories spoke to legal scholars who asserted the 19th Amendment, which gave women the right to vote, bars any discrimination against voting on the basis sex.

Quick hits

By Muhd Imran Ismail/ Shutterstock

From/for the community: 

  • “Shut Up in the Name of Free Speech,” from Transitions Magazine. Tijana Cvjetićanin, co-creator of two Bosnia-Herzegovina based fact-checking projects (Istinomjer and Raskrinkavanje), addresses the recent spate of abuse and harassment faced by fact-checkers.
  • “Nigeria banned Twitter one month ago. Here’s how it’s impacting fact-checkers,” from Poynter. Fact-checkers in Nigeria are making up for a drop in engagement on Twitter by redoubling their efforts on other platforms. The Nigerian government blamed Twitter for instigating social unrest after protests against police brutality turned violent.
  • “Federal judge dismisses lawsuit involving PolitiFact,” from PolitiFact. A judge threw out a case against PolitiFact, Science Feedback, the Poynter Institute, Facebook, and its founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg that claimed the group had “censored a truthful public health statement about vaccines through its fact-checking relationship with Facebook.” The judge found the plaintiffs, Children’s Health Defense, had not “plausibly alleged that defendants engaged in federal action, and thus CHD may not seek injunctive relief based on alleged First Amendment violations.”

From the news: 


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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  • **(Full Disclosure: Fact-checking organizations are required to be signatories to the International Fact-Checking Network’s Code of Principles to be eligible to partner with Facebook)**


    Full disclosure ought to involve identifying Facebook as a funding source for the IFCN as well as for Poynter-owned Facebook fact-checking partner PolitiFact.

    Follow the money, right?