A viral fake about Sylvester Stallone highlights a major flaw in Facebook’s fact-checking tool

On social media, fake memes are everywhere. And on Facebook, they’re not being met with the full force of the tools available for other dubious content.

On Monday, Julien Pain, a French journalist and founder of Instant Détox, tweeted a screenshot of a now-removed hoax claiming that Sylvester Stallone had died of prostate cancer. The Facebook post, which included a couple of photos depicting the actor as sickly, had racked up more than 1.7 million shares as of that afternoon.

By Tuesday, that number had grown to more than 2.5 million shares — in spite of a September 2016 Snopes fact check of a similar death hoax, updated Sunday with a debunk of the latest one. The photos in the post were of Stallone in the film Creed II, in which he portrays Rocky Balboa battling cancer. A quick Google search revealed the hoax to be false, as noted in several mainstream and tabloid publications.

(Screenshot from Google)

And even Stallone himself debunked the hoax — a move that celebrities rarely make in order to prevent further distribution of the rumor, Gossip Cop Founder Michael Lewittes previously told Poynter.

Usually, Snopes, as one of Facebook’s fact-checking partners in the United States, would have seen the hoax on a dashboard and debunked it. Then, Facebook would have accompanied the fake with fact checks like Snopes’ as related articles any time it appeared in News Feeds and its reach would be algorithmically decreased.

But a loophole in the system allows the Stallone hoax to go unflagged on Facebook, amassing hundreds of thousands of more shares.

Per Facebook’s partnership with fact-checking organizations, which launched in December 2016 to limit the reach of fake news, fact-checkers are given a tool to find and debunk viral hoaxes on the platform. But they can only flag them if the falsity in question is a link — not a video, image or meme (Being a verified signatory of the International Fact-Checking Network’s code of principles is a necessary condition for the partnership).

And fact-checkers around the world have taken note of that limitation.

“For us fact-checkers, only being able to review links and not pictures, text-only posts or videos is a limitation,” Adrien Sénécat, a journalist at Le Monde’s Décodeurs, told Poynter in a message.

The problem’s impact is illustrated by the inability of fact checks to scale to the misinformation they address without the intervention of Facebook. While the Stallone death hoax had millions of shares as of publication, according to BuzzSumo, Snopes’ related debunk only had a little more than 300 shares as of publication.

When asked to comment on the inability of fact-checkers to flag memes, a Facebook spokesperson told Poynter in an email that they are working with their partners to understand how to improve the tool — concerns that were aired during a meeting at the tech company’s Silicon Valley headquarters.

“On Feb. 6, we hosted representatives from our fact-checking partners here at our headquarters in Menlo Park,” the spokesperson said. “During that time, we heard from those teams about how we can better meet their needs and they heard from us about our efforts to help them.”

In a story published Thursday, The Wall Street Journal reported that Facebook was working to incorporate images and photos in the fact-checking tool in the coming weeks. The Facebook spokesperson confirmed that in a subsequent email to Poynter.

Pauline Moullot, a journalist at Libération’s Désintox, has also noted the problem, telling Poynter in an email that she’s found viral memes frequently go unchecked on Facebook. Both Décodeurs and Désintox are part of Facebook’s fact-checking project.

This loophole isn’t the only one to surface viral hoaxes about celebrities. Last month, Poynter reported on how fabricated stories still appear in Facebook search even after they’ve been debunked by the platform’s fact-checking partners.

While organizations like PolitiFact and Factcheck.org have found Facebook’s tool to be useful in helping them surface hoaxes that otherwise would go unnoticed, others are skeptical. Brooke Binkowski, managing editor at Snopes, told Poynter in a message that, while enabling fact-checkers to flag viral photos and videos would be helpful, it isn’t sufficient for eradicating fake news entirely.

Short of hiring human editors to back up Facebook’s algorithm, Binkowski said she doesn’t think the fact-checking tool can solve what she sees as a fundamental obstacle — emotion and human ingenuity.

“We can check claims made in (memes) so we can get around that part of it,” she said. “The problem is that these memes are so easy to make and for some reason, the visual aspects of it I guess, they really tie together factual and emotional responses to stories and spread very quickly, which is a challenge.”

Regardless, while Sénécat recognized that letting viral memes have free rein on Facebook poses a conundrum for fact-checkers, he also said that providing a structure for labeling them as false is potentially problematic.

“When we review links, we know that we review editors or websites who pretend to be. If you add (pictures) or videos to that queue, you might have material from random people who shared things that became viral on Facebook, which can be sensitive,” he said.

“In a way, those kind of massive and not elaborated at all hoaxes underlines that Facebook is still a wild place — and its algorithms are still weak in front of disinformation.”

Editor's note: This article has been updated with additional context from Facebook.


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