The last week was a rough one for the fact-check industry, not simply because they demonstrably screwed up a series of very public decisions, but because those decisions exposed them for what they’ve always been: tools for censoring conservatives.
Twitter followed Facebook into the corporate grey zone Wednesday, not even waiting for an “official” media fact-check before banning links to — and accounts associated with — a New York Post story that appears to show Biden family corruption. By evening, Twitter had suspended not just the 3rd largest newspaper in the country, but also the Trump campaign’s account as well as the White House press secretary’s personal account. By the following morning, they’d censored the House Judiciary Committee.
Why? The excuses kept changing but eventually settled on blaming the Russians — an excuse the director of national intelligence shot down early Monday morning.
The Poynter Institute, a non-profit organization in Florida that’s basically the arbiter of who’s allowed to be a fact-checker, was somewhere between mystified and furious at the tech giants’ tactics. “The decision to reduce or prevent the distribution of the New York Post’s article based on some mysterious, non-transparent criteria and an unknown methodology is a serious mistake,” Cristina Tardáguila, the second-in-command of Poynter’s International Fact-Checking Network, wrote.
“Who are these partners they speak of?” the top editor of Poynter’s PolitiFact demanded to know.
Who are these partners they speak of? Has Twitter partnered with fact-checkers without telling anyone? It would be news to me. https://t.co/xqprI5dnIC
— Angie Drobnic Holan (@AngieHolan) October 14, 2020
Twitter might not, but Facebook does have a fact-check partnership with Poynter’s International Fact-Checking Network. The company partnered with the network to avoid just this kind of situation, but on Wednesday morning professional-Democrat-turned-Facebook-communicator Andy Stone publicly decreed they’d get the results they wanted more quickly if they did the fact-check themselves.
While I will intentionally not link to the New York Post, I want be clear that this story is eligible to be fact checked by Facebook's third-party fact checking partners. In the meantime, we are reducing its distribution on our platform.
— Andy Stone (@andymstone) October 14, 2020
So Poynter’s complaints, while still right on their face, are really just complaints about having been cut out of the process, threatening their perch as corporate-designated arbiters of truth. Corporate America cutting the media fact-checkers out, however, doesn’t make all that much difference to you and me. The bypassed process is itself rotten, and the end result of either measure is just the same: partisan censorship.
Just one day before the New York Post’s big story, for example, liberal news site The Dispatch “fact-checked” an obviously true Facebook post, finding it false. The Dispatch article, by a reporter who had released her fact check just a week prior, was published by the team and manually uploaded into Facebook. After three days of pressure over the sloppy work and laughable finding, the site’s top editor claimed it had all been a technical mistake and updated their finding to “true.”
The Dispatch is certified by Poynter.
A day before that, Facebook labeled a Federalist article on a Centers for Disease Control report false, relying on a blanket pro-mask “fact check” from a liberal science site with no bylines and no public contact information.
That site is certified by Poynter too.
A month prior, Facebook used a PolitiFact check to block a conservative ad campaign. The check claimed PolitiFact could not fact-check the ad because it can’t fact-check the future, but its editor in chief defended the ad being blocked, telling The Federalist “the ad is most certainly missing context.”
PolitiFact is literally run by Poynter. Their slogan is “facts are under assault in 2020.”
Poynter’s not alone. During Thursday’s townhalls, The New York Times’ regular political reporters jumped in on the fun, claiming President Donald Trump was fact-check-false for saying he’s done more for black Americans than any president since Abraham Lincoln. On what grounds? The completely subjective measurement that they’d found historians who disagreed.
Fact-checking has long been a dubious industry. Meant as some sort of designated section where reporters deal in facts only, its very existence is a tacit admission that the rest of the paper can’t be trusted.
Organizations like Poynter give it all a glossy coat with their certification system, but even Poynter’s rigorous process standards are a sort of strawman. The root of so much journalistic bias doesn’t even lie in straight-up falsehoods, but in a hidden kind of selection bias. Which stories are covered and which are ignored? Which aspects are deemed important enough to make the headline or top of the story, and which are buried deep down below or not mentioned at all? Which subjective utterance is false according to some preferred subjective utterance? Who is asked to comment and where are they featured? Even what picture is chosen: All of these things can convey different messages, or none at all, and all are tools employed by fact-checkers.
Over the past several years, dressed up in official-sounding titles, the fact-checkers have allied themselves with some of the most powerful private companies to have ever existed — with quick results. One report, for example, finds that Facebook and Twitter have censored Trump 65 times, while not censoring former Vice President Joe Biden once. That’s no surprise: Senior leadership across all of the world’s biggest tech companies have made their anti-Trump bias known.
All that is fine with the fact-checkers, who are paid well for certain partnerships. Fine with them, unless the companies decide they don’t need them anymore. For the American public, it’s “meet the new boss, same as the old boss.” Either way, you lose.