Saturday, December 17, 2016

Facebook’s Fake Fix for Fake News

The Wall Street Journal
Review & Outlook

Liberal fact-checkers are not the way to ensure a more informed public.

Some progressives will do anything to avoid confronting the realities of why Hillary Clinton lost the election, and one diversion is the complaint about fake news, which is provoking even worse responses. Facebook announced this week that the social-media platform will weed out some stories, and that the company will deputize “fact-checkers” to decide if an article is credible. What could go wrong?

Facebook says it is testing technology so that a story shared on its site that is flagged by users, among unknown other indicators, will be checked out by the Associated Press, ABC News, PolitiFact or others. If these high priests declare a story fake, it will be denoted as “Disputed by 3rd Party Fact-Checkers” and perhaps demoted in a news feed.

This appears to be a response to the fake news story that Mrs. Clinton lost the election because false information duped people into voting for Donald Trump. There is zero evidence that invented events—an article that said “The Pope Endorsed Donald Trump,” for example—swayed the election.

More than 80% of Americans told Pew Research in a recent poll that they can spot fake news, and only a third report seeing it often. Fakery and exaggeration exist on the web. But this does not qualify as a democracy-killing “epidemic,” which is how Mrs. Clinton described it last week.

It’s certainly curious that the consternation over fake news seems aimed above all against Mr. Trump. Politico this fall rolled out a fact check of the Republican, claiming that every three minutes he told one “untruth.” Here’s one of those supposed falsehoods: Mr. Trump said Islamic State is evil “the world has not seen.” Politico concluded that this was false because “judging one ‘level of evil’ against another is subjective.” Well, judging what is true is also often subjective.

That’s certainly the case with PolitiFact, which pretends to be even-handed but has its own biases. In 2008 PolitiFact helped bless ObamaCare with a “true” rating for candidate Barack Obama’s claim that “if you like your health-care plan, you can keep it.” In 2009 the website demoted the remark to “half true,” adding the non-insight that ObamaCare would “surely change the current health system.” By 2013, as Americans lost their insurance, PolitiFact changed its judgment and called Mr. Obama’s line the “lie of the year.”

Tendentious PolitiFact ratings are a classic genre of bad journalism. When Texas libertarian Ron Paul said the U.S. federal income-tax rate was zero until 1913, PolitiFact called that “half true.” (We would have called that true.) Former Virginia Senator Jim Webb later said the same thing and notched a mark of “mostly true,” and maybe he earned extra points for being a Democrat.

Behind this is the conceit that political debates could be settled if ideologues (Republicans) would only accept what the liberal consensus defines as “facts,” as if worldview or interpretation are irrelevant. Facebook has long insisted that it is neutral about content, and earlier this year it denied reports that the platform censored conservative news. That’s looking less credible.

The company also says it will only target the “worst of the worst” fake news, which you would think a sophisticated algorithm could identify without an assist from PolitiFact. In any case, the standard is subjective and no one knows which employees will make that call. Google’s YouTube site restricts videos based in part on community flagging, which is how conservative radio host Dennis Prager’s videos about free speech and other topics ended up marked as “inappropriate.” Facebook’s editing experiment may result in similar judgments that are ideologically skewed.

If Facebook is really worried about bad information crowding out good, here’s one suggestion. Pay news organizations in exchange for featuring trusted and reliable content where users can find it easily. Facebook’s business model depends in part on making money off content produced by others, including this newspaper. But producing real news with credible standards of accuracy is expensive. How about paying publishers for it?

Facebook can run its business as it pleases, but this fake fact-checking exercise is likely to damage its brand and open itself to political pressure from every corner, including from Mr. Trump. Meantime, progressives will continue to invent controversies to avoid acknowledging the (true) fact that American voters rejected their presidential candidate for real reasons based on real concerns about the real condition of their country.