As regular readers of PJ Media know, we’ve been battling Facebook’s fact-checkers for the last few years, especially on topics where there are genuine—and legitimate—differences of opinion. More specifically, the topics of climate change and COVID-19 have triggered numerous fact checks in recent months, not because we’ve gotten the facts wrong, but because Facebook’s fact-checkers put their “experts” up against ours and determined that theirs are right and ours are wrong. The only legitimate authorities on the given topic are the ones the fact-checkers have handpicked—those who agree with their point of view. They did this early on in the COVID-19 pandemic, citing experts who insisted that the virus did not originate in a lab in Wuhan while dismissing all experts who claimed otherwise. When evidence emerged that the virus likely did originate in the Wuhan Institute of Virology, Facebook’s fact-checkers stopped flagging articles making that claim, but they never apologized for their mistake or for defaming good people and reliable sites—and for throttling traffic to those sites.
Now, Facebook is admitting what many of us have known to be true for some time: Its fact-check labels are opinions rather than definitive renderings of the facts. In court filings (embedded below) related to a defamation lawsuit by John Stossel, Meta, the parent company of Facebook, claimed that the platform did not defame the veteran journalist because they were merely offering an opinion when labeling his videos about climate change as “partly false.”
Meta insists that Stossel was not defamed because the fact-checks were written by a third-party organization. All Facebook did was affix labels to the videos based on… the articles written by the fact-checkers and the conclusions they reached. As such, the labels themselves merely “constitute protected opinion,” said Meta’s lawyers. [Emphasis added]
Essentially, Facebook is trying to divorce itself from the claims being made by the fact-checkers it relies on, in this, a French climate-alarmism operation called Climate Feedback (operating under the umbrella of Science Feedback), which Stossel said defamed him by attaching disparaging labels to his videos related to the climate change debate.
But according to Meta, “even if Stossel could attribute Climate Feedback’s separate webpages to Meta, the challenged statements on those pages are neither false nor defamatory.”
But Facebook “defamed Stossel, with malice,” the journalist’s attorneys wrote in the initial complaint. “First, they attributed to Stossel a claim he did not make, and which caused his viewers to shun him. Defendants made this false attribution recklessly, before they had even reviewed his video. And even after Stossel brought the issue to Defendants’ attention, Defendants refused to correct their speech, and intentionally left the false attribution online for anyone to see, where it remains today.”
“With this lawsuit, Stossel asks the Court to declare that Defendants are not permitted to hide behind the masquerade of a ‘fact-check’ to defame him with impunity, and that they must make him whole for the damage they have maliciously caused by their provably false and disparaging statements about his reporting,” the complaint added.
Meta admits that Facebook relies on “independent third-party fact-checkers to identify, rate, and analyze potential misinformation on the Facebook platform” and says the use of “independent” fact-checkers ensures “that Meta does not become the arbiter of truth on its platforms,” according to the filing. “Though Meta identifies potential misinformation for fact-checkers to review and rate, it leaves the ultimate determination whether information is false or misleading to the fact-checkers. And though Meta has designed its platforms so that fact-checker ratings appear next to content that the fact-checkers have reviewed and rated, it does not contribute to the substance of those ratings.”
Further, Meta claims that just because they’ve contracted with fact-checkers to determine which content is true and which is false, the fact that they independently arrive at their conclusions shields Facebook from responsibility for their claims.
“For an agency relationship to exist between Meta and Climate Feedback or Science Feedback, Meta must have either actually assented to the Feedback entities acting on its behalf or have held them out as authorized to act on Meta’s behalf,” the social-media giant’s lawyers say. “Meta’s public identification of the fact-checkers, including Climate Feedback and Science Feedback, as ‘independent’… without more, defeats any inference that Meta assented to either Feedback entity acting on its behalf.”
As Stossel’s lawyers explain, “The Feedback Defendants contract and work with Facebook to ‘fact-check’ content posted by Facebook users. Facebook commissions the fact-checking and applies content, labels, and other information developed by the fact-checking to the speech of its users.”
Yet we are to believe that the relationship between Facebook and the fact-checkers is merely incidental.
The linguistic gymnastics Facebook uses to hide behind the fact-checkers is breathtaking. Facebook enters into agreements with partisan fact-checking operations like Climate Feedback and relies on their conclusions to determine which content gets seen on its platform and which is either hidden from view or is displayed with warnings like “false” or “partly false.” That Facebook employees are not the ones writing the fact-checks does not absolve the company of guilt when the company wrongly disparages individuals and media outlets with whom they have differences of opinion on complicated policy and scientific debates.
But we’re just trying to make sure people get accurate information, Facebook would have us believe. Yet there are real-world consequences—both financial and in terms of reputation—when a piece of content receives a false rating on the platform. As Facebook admits, “[o]nce a fact-checker rates a piece of information as False, Altered or Partly False, it will appear lower in News Feed, be filtered out of Explore on Instagram, and be featured less prominently in Feed and Stories. This significantly reduces the number of people who see it. We also reject ads with content that has been rated by fact-checkers.”
For Stossel—and for PJ Media as well—such labels result in a loss of revenue when fewer people view the content, and in damage to the reputation of the individual or media outlet that shared the content. It also results in hours upon hours of manpower as our longsuffering social media director attempts to make sense of the fact checks and appeal the decisions—a maddening and often futile process that often come down to the fact-checkers asserting that their experts are better than our experts, so nanny-nanny boo-boo.
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Stossel’s lawsuit is an important one—a high-profile veteran journalist is challenging a powerful social media behemoth. Defamation lawsuits are notoriously difficult to win, especially when it’s a media organization that’s being sued. The courts tend to come down on the side of the First Amendment, rightly concluding in most cases that such claims necessarily chill free speech. Facebook claims that they’re not engaging in journalism, that they’re merely running a platform for individual users to post their content. The company cites 230 protections—language in the FCC regulations protecting websites from being sued for content posted by others. The regulations were enacted in the early days of the internet and arguably gave rise to its growth—but they have not been updated since the rise of platforms like Facebook. The fact that the company has given itself broad authority to censor speech it doesn’t like may be enough to convince a judge somewhere that Facebook shouldn’t have such protections and should be treated more like a journalistic outlet—or even a utility company.
Read Facebook’s recent filing: