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OPINION | BRENDA LOOPER: Check the facts

by Brenda Looper | October 13, 2021 at 3:45 a.m.
Brenda Looper

For me, last week's Facebook/Instagram/WhatsApp/Messenger outage was much ado about nothing.

I do feel sorry for those businesses that rely on Facebook, but for everyone else, it should have been a welcome break; a chance to unplug at least for a few hours. Not that some people could, really, considering they're so consumed by social media that they went to other platforms to complain about Facebook being down and put forth conspiracy theories (I mean, there was that whistle-blower on "60 Minutes" the night before).

Once it came back online, there were the usual jokes among my friends about having somehow caused the outage, but for the most part, things returned to normal. Not that that's a good thing. I spent a little time over the next few days checking out public group pages I ordinarily wouldn't (conspiracy-heavy, fact-checker-hating, primarily) to see what the denizens there were thinking.

Hoo boy. My brain still feels discombobulated. But I did see a need, especially as it's been so long for me, to talk about fact-checking.

One meme I saw complained about Facebook's fact-checkers, maintaining that no one could fact-check something in less than a minute.

Well, duh. Fact-checking can take you down a lot of rabbit holes sometimes, and to write a full fact-check with links to sources can take hours just for research, and sometimes days. So how does a fact-check get attached to something just minutes after it's posted?

If the post is unoriginal, algorithms might catch keywords and attach the appropriate fact-check, which is already written, or other users might report the post. If you thought that a fresh fact-check is done every time, disabuse yourself of that notion. Nobody has time for that, especially considering the amount of misinformation and disinformation posted on social media every hour of the day. Keyword detection is used, and if it's something that hasn't been checked before, especially in the case of trending topics, fact-checkers kick into gear and post the new fact-check as soon as it's completed.

Facebook's fact-checks are handled not by Facebook itself, but by independent third-party fact-checkers with the International Fact-Checking Network (IFCN). Facebook writes on its Facebook Journalism Project page: "Since 2016, our fact-checking program has expanded to include more than 80 organizations working in more than 60 languages globally. The focus of the program is to address viral misinformation--provably false claims, particularly those that have the potential to mislead or harm. ...

"Fact-checkers review and rate the accuracy of stories through original reporting, which may include interviewing primary sources, consulting public data and conducting analyses of media, including photos and video. Fact-checkers do not remove content, accounts or pages from Facebook."

IFCN member organizations make a commitment, according to the Poynter Institute, to use the same standard for every fact check and let the evidence make the call. They also advocate transparency in their fact-check sources and methodology and their funding.

But sure, keep complaining about being dinged for a post about Henry Kissinger at the WHO Council on Eugenics (which doesn't exist). Confirmation bias is more important, right?

Stephen J. Ceci and Wendy M. Williams wrote in The Scientific American, "Fact-checkers are human beings who live in the real world, rather than in a sociopolitical monastery. Let's abandon the pretense of objectivity and design a system of adversarial fact-checking that places the evidence for competing claims front and center."

The adversarial system they propose would have teams of fact-checkers with varying political views (which has its own issues), but the sources used to fact-check are, I believe, far more important, along with how the fact-checker operates.

Does the fact-checker link to its sources? (Those that do are more reliable, for the most part.) If so, does it link to original documents (campaign finance reports, for example) and reporting, or does it link to itself and/or opinion pieces? Does it explain how it came to its ruling? When was the fact-check published, and have there been updates and/or corrections? (A site willing to correct and update fact-checks if new information comes to light is better.) Is the fact-checker site open about its funding sources?

FactCheck.org and PolitiFact, along with Reuters, are the ones I most often turn to precisely because they do those things that make them more trustworthy. They're even willing to check memes, conspiracy theories and jokes when asked because it's been made pretty clear over the past several years that some people believe them, no matter how outrageous they are.

Lest we forget, there was that man who in 2016 fired shots in the Comet Ping Pong pizzeria in Washington, D.C., in the course of "self-investigating" the theory that Hillary Clinton and others were operating a satanic child trafficking operation in the business' nonexistent basement.

Let's not have a repeat of that, please.


Assistant Editor Brenda Looper is editor of the Voices page. Read her blog at blooper0223.wordpress.com. Email her at blooper@adgnewsroom.com.

Print Headline: Check the facts

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