A new case study illustrates clearly that Facebook should reevaluate its partnership with PolitiFact, which does not operate as a responsible fact-checking organization. Challenged over its vague ruling on a new ad targeting the Equality Act from the American Principles Project PAC, PolitiFact refused to muster a serious defense of the decision, choosing instead to brush aside fair questions.
“Our story is complete and accurate, and the ad is most certainly missing context. I could expound on those points, but it is not necessary, so I have nothing more to add,” Editor-in-Chief Angie Holan told The Federalist on Thursday.
Holan sent APP a similarly dismissive email on Wednesday. Presented by APP Executive Director Terry Schilling with a series of questions and 18 examples rebutting PolitiFact’s ruling, Holan tersely replied, “Terry, maybe you didn’t understand me the first time, so I’ll repeat it: Our story is accurate and complete, and your ad fits the definition of missing context. Your appeal is rejected.”
Facebook just censored our PAC's $4 million ad campaign in Michigan attacking @JoeBiden and @SenGaryPeters
for their support for radical policies that would destroy women's sports. pic.twitter.com/dH8d8QrK7p
— American Principles (@approject) September 15, 2020
“Any objective fact-checker who reviewed your ad and our report, or did their own independent reporting on your ad, would agree your ad is ‘missing context,'” she finished, according to a copy of the exchange obtained by The Federalist.
‘That’s a Prediction We Can’t Fact-check’
Because PolitiFact, an allegedly nonpartisan project of the Poynter Institute, determined the spot is “missing context,” Facebook, which uses the outlet as one of its third-party fact-checkers, blocked APP from running it as a paid advertisement and slapped a “fact-check” label on the video. Oddly enough, in a Tuesday article, PolitiFact claimed it could not “fact-check” the ad’s central claim.
The video warns that Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden and Sen. Gary Peters (D-Mich.) “support legislation that would destroy girls’ sports,” because both support passing the Equality Act. “Their specific criticism is that allowing transgender girls and women to compete on the basis of their gender identity would create an uneven playing field for student athlete and ultimately end girls’ and women’s sports,” wrote PolitiFact reporter Clara Hendrickson, “That’s a prediction we can’t fact-check.”
Here’s the notice we received from Facebook. pic.twitter.com/xWHqlWCBk3
— American Principles (@approject) September 15, 2020
Before publication, Hendrickson emailed Schilling, asking for his response to two specific counterarguments. “Tommy Lundberg, a researcher at the Karolinska Institute — a leading medical institute in Sweden — who has studied the impact of testosterone suppression on transgender women notes that the research in this area falls short,” she wrote.
Hendrickson also noted she “spoke with Neena Chaudhry, Senior Counsel at the National Women’s Law Center who says ‘women’s sports hasn’t ended’ as a result” of policies in states like Michigan that allow transgender-identifying athletes to compete based on gender identity.
In his response, Schilling politely addressed the critiques, supplying reasonable evidence to rebut the assertions. Such back-and-forth is entirely normal. PolitiFact, of course, ultimately determined it couldn’t fact-check APP’s prediction about the Equality Act’s effect on women’s sports, leading to the “missing context” ruling that blocked the ad on Facebook.
Schilling appealed the decision, asking “what we could change about the ad you reviewed to ‘provide more context’ and avoid the down ranking and censorship that we are now experiencing.” Hendrickson directed him to Managing Editor Katie Sanders, who wrote, “I can’t tell you what to say for ads going forward. For our purposes, future ads need to be better rooted in evidence than this one. The prediction about cisgender girls and women being dominated by transgender athletes is unsupported in the places where this policy is already the case, and the ad gives a different impression.”
“I see from your quote in the piece that you do not consider that relevant, but we do,” she added.
‘Maybe You Didn’t Understand Me the First Time’
Schilling appealed once more, mentioning cases that prove APP’s prediction and noting, “There is currently a federal court case where female athletes in Connecticut are suing the Connecticut Interscholastic Athletic Conference on the basis of a violation of Title IX for allowing transgender girls to compete in women’s athletics. If their claims are solid enough to have standing in a federal court case, then how in the world are these same claims not valid enough for a campaign ad on Facebook?”
That’s when Holan stepped in. “We’ve reviewed the ad again as well as our reporting. Our story is accurate and complete, and the ad fits the definition of missing context. Your appeal is rejected,” she replied. “As Katie noted, we can’t tell you how to phrase your ads, but I believe that any competent public relations professional you consulted could give specific advice on improving the ad’s rhetoric.”
Schilling responded in extensive detail, attaching a chart of 18 cases involving “female athletes in America being harmed by male athletes competing against them,” complete with quotes, dates, names, locations, and sources. He also listed three examples of anti-Republican ads, highlighting factual discrepancies and asking whether they, too, were “missing context.”
Schilling further pressed Holan to answer key questions about PolitiFact’s determination. “You fail to give any reason for exactly HOW or WHAT context is being left out. This is what policy debates are about — person A makes a positive claim/prediction about their policy. Then person B makes a negative claim/prediction about the same policy,” he said.
To this, Holan replied to indicate she had no interest in offering a substantive response. “Terry, maybe you didn’t understand me the first time, so I’ll repeat it: Our story is accurate and complete, and your ad fits the definition of missing context. Your appeal is rejected,” she emailed back.
Holan is on the board of Poynter’s International Fact-Checking Network, the organization Facebook relies on to determine which third-party fact-checkers it uses. Again, when asked by The Federalist to explain PolitiFact’s decision, Holan was dismissive. “Our story is complete and accurate, and the ad is most certainly missing context. I could expound on those points, but it is not necessary, so I have nothing more to add,” she emailed me.
The ruling itself is egregious, given that “missing context” is a remarkably vague reason to disqualify a political ad, especially one that is predicated on more than a dozen substantiating examples and basic reason. It’s a laughable standard. Still, PolitiFact’s response is even worse.
Every political ad could easily be described as “missing context,” since their goal is to represent a partisan position. Asked politely by APP and a media outlet to explain why this particular ad earned that label, PolitiFact refused. PolitiFact also refused to engage with reasonable evidence against its ruling, and its editor-in-chief treated good-faith critics as unworthy of her time.
There is ample evidence of PolitiFact’s anti-conservative bias over the last decade, which is hardly unusual for the so-called fact-checking industry. What’s troubling about PolitiFact’s conduct in this case, however, is the vague, selectively-applied labeling, the refusal to explain the standards behind that labeling, and the outlet’s disinterest in engaging with fair-minded critics.
Tech outlets like Facebook rely increasingly on third-party fact-checkers to determine what content is allowed on their platforms. Whether they use third-parties or internal sources, conflicts like this one are impossible to avoid. But Silicon Valley should be better prepared to address bias among fact-checkers so it truly provides both parties with an even playing ground, as Facebook purports to do.
Asked by The Federalist whether Facebook would reevaluate its relationship with PolitiFact in light of its ruling against APP, the company declined to comment.
Politifact doesn’t need to agree with APP. It does, however, need to apply its standards evenly, be transparent about its process, and be willing to engage with good-faith critics. Dismissing requests for more information, especially after issuing a vague ruling, is conduct that should trouble Facebook.