Facebook recently announced that it has begun testing changes to its platform to limit the sharing of “fake news.” Here are five problems with their plan.
1) Fake News Is a Fake Story
Simply put, the “fake news” hysteria is just that: hysteria. It’s a narrative being pushed by progressives to explain how Hillary Clinton could have possibly lost an election to Donald Trump. Rather than come to terms with the reality that Trump, flawed though he is, was more appealing to American voters than the scandal-plagued, corrupt crony Hillary Clinton, the media choose to cling to conspiracy theories that explain his win. That’s why liberal elites from Hillary Clinton and President Obama have joined fellow progressives in the media to call for people to “do something” about this problem.
This is not to say that “fake news” doesn’t exist. Of course it exists. It always has and it always will. But the idea that it’s a major problem requiring limits on expression is crazy. Even the stories claiming it’s big news show that it’s not. Pew Charitable Trusts followed their progressive marching orders and did a poll on the matter. They spun it as dramatically as they could: “Many Americans Believe Fake News Is Sowing Confusion.”
But it actually showed that 84 percent of Americans are confident that they can detect fake news when they come across it. Their concerns about fake news are really concerns about the spread of false information — something that just as well describes mainstream media as sites that more overtly craft fake news.
To give just two examples, this week we saw that two stories pushed hard in many major media outlets were false. One was about a Santa holding a dying boy in his arms and one was about yet another hate crime hoax, this time from a Muslim New York woman. The supposedly respectable media find it very easy to spread completely false stories and unsubstantiated reports.
The Pew study also showed that more than half of the 23 percent of people who had shared fake news had done so knowingly — to draw attention to its fakeness or for laughs. This is the crisis of our age that requires a heavy-handed top-down solution? And what percentage of this fake news that people are admitting to sharing wasn’t “fake news” as defined by liberal media but stuff the liberal media itself promulgates, such as the widely praised, but since proven completely false, University of Virginia gang rape hoax that was on the cover of Rolling Stone?
In Pew’s write-up of its poll, it linked to a debunked BuzzFeed analysis (“This Analysis Shows How Fake Election News Stories Outperformed Real News On Facebook”) to substantiate the epidemic of fake news. As Tim Carney wrote weeks ago at the Washington Examiner, the analysis doesn’t measure how much traffic went to fake election stories versus real ones, but only the top few in each genre at a few sites. It only chose from a tiny handful of mainstream sites instead of the ones with the most traffic.
And the “real news” stories aren’t real news at all! One was an opinion piece headlined “Trump’s history of corruption is mind-boggling. So why is Clinton supposedly the corrupt one?” The second was a rambling screed claiming people only dislike Clinton because they’re misogynists. And the third top “real news” story was racy Melania Trump photos. What’s more, to gather its data, BuzzFeed used a URL search method that Facebook later announced was inaccurate.
2) PolitiFact Is A Joke
According to media reports, the “fact” “checking” organizations Snopes.com, PolitiFact, ABC News, Factcheck.org and the Associated Press will determine which stories are fake for Facebook. Snopes is still coasting on a good reputation it earned when it limited its service to exposing Internet hoaxes and false email forwards. Now it’s ventured into more bizarre territory.
I first noticed this when it rated a completely true claim about Obamacare architect Jonathan Gruber’s remarks regarding the stupidity of the American voter a mixture of truth and falsehood for reasons that made no sense at all. Also, it’s got a weird satire meter. My tweet sharing the brilliant satirical stylings of Babylon Bee is featured, and other satirical tweets are similarly “debunked.”
But the real problems are PolitiFact and Factcheck.org, both of which have no idea how to check anything, least of all facts. The problems with these “fact” “checking” operations are legion.
To give but one example, PolitiFact took a statement by Casey Mattox that is 100 percent true and rated it “half true.” His statement was “Zero Planned Parenthood facilities are licensed to do mammograms. Planned Parenthood, women don’t need you!” PolitiFact, after many, many, many paragraphs of throat clearing, admitted that the fact claim was true — zero Planned Parenthood facilities are licensed to do mammograms.
But aha! They said “numbers don’t tell the whole story” on mammograms because people at Planned Parenthood could talk to women about mammograms and stuff. When Democrat Martin O’Malley said that “97 percent of the work that Planned Parenthood does is about mammograms and preventative health,” which we know is not true since zero percent of the work that Planned Parenthood does is mammograms, PolitiFact rated that “half true” as well. Whatever the hell this is, it’s not fact-checking.
To reiterate, a guy saying a completely true thing about the zero mammograms Planned Parenthood does is rated the same as a guy saying it’s 97 percent of what they do. These are the people who will decide what’s fake or not? How far have the supposedly respectable media spread the fake news that Planned Parenthood does mammograms, something even Planned Parenthood President Cecile Richards had to admit was false when she was under oath before Congress last year?
Further on the topic of abortion, how many “fact” “checkers” rated the claim that Clinton supports abortion on demand throughout pregnancy as “pants on fire” or whatever? But when Trump accused her of the same in a debate and she didn’t deny it, the fact checkers moved the goal posts to check something unrelated — the frequency of late-term abortions! It was utterly bizarre, if typical.
More examples include “Lies, Damned Lies, and ‘Fact Checking’: The liberal media’s latest attempt to control the discourse,” as well as “Obama’s Palace Guard: How media fact checkers made themselves of service to the president in the welfare reform debate,” and this, this admission that their “lie of the year” was literally true, this, this, and this. Or see how they rate as “Mostly False” statements that they admit are “clearly accurate” and “technically true.”
PolitiFact is a joke. They should be trusted with nothing. They are the worst candidates to adjudicate fakery in the entire media establishment. Even among the disreputable “fact” “checking” class, they are noteworthy for their awfulness.
3) Mission Creep Is a Real Problem
In the New York Times report on the change, PolitiFact showed how they could make things even worse:
‘For PolitiFact, our intention is to focus only on posts that we believe to be false or highly misleading,’ said Aaron Sharockman, PolitiFact’s executive director, in an email. PolitiFact rates the truthfulness of stories on a six-point scale ranging from ‘True’ to ‘Pants on Fire.’ PolitiFact will focus on flagging Facebook posts that fall closer to the latter, Mr. Sharockman said.
The only thing Facebook should be doing, if it really wants to take part in this hysteria, is flagging made-up stories. Not stories that don’t share the political views of the extremely biased PolitiFact. PolitiFact rates political views it disagrees with at one end of the spectrum while being extremely generous with the other end that most media figures populate. They can’t even keep to “pants on fire” flagging before the experiment has begun. Imagine how out of control it will be in a few years.
Consider how amorphous the “fake news” claims already are, and how quickly they will morph merely into “news I don’t like.” Already the media struggle to cover stories they disagree with politically, deriding as false anything that doesn’t fit pre-scripted narratives.
4) This Will Simply Increase Distrust to More Places
Journalism professor Matt Waite wrote a great little prediction following meetings he took with top journalists about how to restore trust in news. It ended:
You won’t fix the belief that trust and fake news is Google and Facebook’s problems and not yours because…
You still don’t believe you’re the problem.
Wake me when you do.
The lack of trust in the media — the problem that only 6 percent of Americans feel they can truly trust the media — is not a problem of fake news. It’s a problem of the mainstream media, not a couple of random suburban hoaxsters trying to make a quick buck.
The more that the media tries to control information and seize back control over the spread of information, the more it seems like the media are in the interest of propaganda and agenda-pushing at the expense of facts. It won’t help the media gain trust at all. It will only give people more outlets to view with skepticism.
5) Censorship Is a Bad Instinct
Facebook is free to do whatever it wants with its platform. It’s a private company and it’s a free country. But the authoritarian impulse to shut down information or view it as a threat is still something to guard against. The cure to bad and fake information is better and true information, not less.
At its best, this “third-party” censorship can be viewed as a way to provide more information. But at its worst, it’s just a limit on free expression. If past is prologue, the “fact” “checkers” chosen to review this information will deride as fake information that is actually not fake in any way. Claiming that true things are not to be trusted is a mark of a post-totalitarian regime and one we should avoid.
If you’ll allow me to end with a bit of “fake news” — or a satirical Twitter feed purporting to be from the North Korean regime:
Calls for prohibition of “fake news” in west show wisdom of Marshal Kim Jong-Un. DPRK citizens enjoy total protection from false journalism.
— DPRK News Service (@DPRK_News) December 15, 2016
Exactly. Let’s make sure our cure isn’t worse than the minor scratch we’re freaking out over.