Facebook Eyes the Midterms

Facebook employees conducted a press conference yesterday to “review our ongoing election efforts.” Facebook has happily (as it seems to me) bought into the dubious narrative that Russian agents significantly influenced the 2016 presidential election by propagating “fake news” on its platform. Facebook’s cure, in my view, promises to be much worse than the disease.

By now, everyone knows the story: during the 2016 US election, foreign actors tried to undermine the integrity of the electoral process. Their attack included taking advantage of open online platforms — such as Facebook — to divide Americans, and to spread fear, uncertainty and doubt.
There are four main election security areas that we are working on. They are:

First, combating foreign interference,

Second, removing fake accounts,

Third, increasing ads transparency, and

Fourth, reducing the spread of false news.

There are an enormous number of fake accounts on Facebook. I have several thousand Facebook “friends,” and I find that between one-third and one-half of the friend requests I receive are obviously fakes, generally featuring comely young women who do not appear to be American citizens. I can’t believe that this profusion of fictitious accounts comes as news to Facebook.

The key point here, of course, is the company’s determination to “reduce the spread of false news.” In my opinion, the Associated Press, the New York Times, the Washington Post, CNN, MSNBC etc. spread false “news” every day, but I don’t think that is what Facebook has in mind.

The term “fake news” is used to describe a lot of different types of activity that we would like to prevent. When we study these issues, we have to first define what is actually “fake.” The most common issues are:

Fake identities– this is when an actor conceals their identity or takes on the identity of another group or individual;

Fake audiences– so this is using tricks to artificially expand the audience or the perception of support for a particular message;

False facts – the assertion of false information; and

False narratives– which are intentionally divisive headlines and language that exploit disagreements and sow conflict. This is the most difficult area for us, as different news outlets and consumers can have completely different on what an appropriate narrative is even if they agree on the facts.

I think it remarkable that Facebook intends to take on “false narratives,” i.e., “intentionally divisive headlines and language.” Is it surprising that people disagree about “what an appropriate narrative is”? How Facebook intends to referee competing narratives, I can’t imagine. Well, no, actually I can.

How about “false facts”? Here, Facebook must rely on fact-checkers:

Today, I want to talk about one part of our strategy: our partnership with third-party fact-checking organizations. We’re seeing progress in our ability to limit the spread of articles rated false by fact-checkers, and we’re scaling our efforts.

Here’s how it works:

* We use signals, including feedback from people on Facebook, to predict potentially false stories for fact-checkers to review.

* When fact-checkers rate a story as false, we significantly reduce its distribution in News Feed — dropping future views on average by more than 80%.

* We notify people who’ve shared the story in the past and warn people who try to share it going forward.

* For those who still come across the story in their News Feed, we show more information from fact-checkers in a Related Articles unit.

* We use the information from fact-checkers to train our machine learning model, so that we can catch more potentially false news stories and do so faster.

So it all comes down to, who are the fact-checkers? A Facebook employee stated at the press conference that approved fact checkers will be those who have signed on to Poynter’s international fact checking network principles. You can see the list of signatories at the link; the only one that I recognize as more or less conservative is the Weekly Standard. Facebook has already said that it will use Politifact and Snopes, both left-leaning, as fact checkers. At the press conference, it got even worse:

In the US, we recently announced a partnership with The Associated Press to use their reporters in all 50 states to identify and debunk false and misleading stories related to the federal, state and local US midterm elections.

The Associated Press is the number one source of left-wing bias in the American press. Its “fact checks” are directed almost exclusively against President Trump and his administration, rarely against Democrats. I have written about them a number of times. In my judgment, the AP’s anti-Trump “fact checks” are wrong as often as they are right. Most often, they just assert Democratic Party talking points. If the AP is to be Facebook’s principal fact-checker for the midterm elections, Facebook may as well outsource the function to the Democratic National Committee.

The Left coined the phrase “fake news,” but President Trump co-opted it and made it his own. Nevertheless, Facebook appears poised to march doggedly on under the “fake news” banner, using it to repress conservative voices on its platform.