Appeasement v. truth

Late last year, Facebook inducted The Weekly Standard (TWS), an American news outlet, as one of its only five fact-checkers and the sole conservative voice in the group. Earlier this week, TWS raised objections about an article published by Think Progress, a liberal news outlet, prompting the latter to claim it was being discriminated against for its ideological slant. Obviously, the event has raised a furore on Twitter, with many more liberal voices piping up in favour of Think Progress and denouncing Facebook’s attempt to appease everyone instead of aligning itself with the truth. There’s a lot going on here that I’d like to unpack.

The Think Progress headline reads: ‘Brett Kavanaugh said he would kill Roe v. Wade last week and almost no one noticed.’

First – As Think Progress has discussed, it doesn’t make sense that Facebook recruited TWS into its fact-checkers’ fold when it hadn’t been subjected to the same evaluation standards as the social platform’s four other fact-checkers (AP, Factcheck, PolitiFact and Snopes) – until you suspect Zuckerberg is indeed trying to appease both sides of the political spectrum. This doesn’t bode well for a platform that constantly aspires to be the place people get their news in nor does it bode well for publishers, who now have a disincentive to be liberal or more generally disagree with TWS.

Second – It’s possible that Think Progress has been penalised for its ideological slant here. Liberal v. conservative rivalries in the news space are increasingly becoming the norm, with some outlets pointedly aiming their guns at what their ‘opponent’ outlets are saying. That said, the headline for the original Think Progress article was, in fact, misleading and deserved to be cautioned about.

When you say a judge has “said he would kill” a law or previous judgment, you are immediately implying he intends to undo it. But this is not what Kavanaugh said. According to the Think Progress article itself, and explainers by Vox and The Conversation, Kavanaugh is opposed to the precedent set by Roe v. Wade. As an associate justice nominee to the SCOTUS, if Kavanaugh makes it to the bench, there will be a 5-4 majority to overturn Roe v. Wade. Does the Think Progress headline imply that he will vote that way? Yes. But has Kavanaugh said he will vote that way? No.

Third – Michael Stern argued on Slate that it was unfair for TWS to dock Think Progress for an opinion piece and label it as “false news” on Facebook. But opinion or not, Think Progress is guilty of misrepresenting reality in its headline. As TWS appears to have asserted, changing the headline will remove it from Facebook’s ‘beware’ bin. This is also where a point made by Brendan Nyhan, a public policy expert who contributes to Upshot NYT, is relevant: that on Facebook, most people see only the headline.

At The Wire, we have often observed that an article with a striking headline will receive a lot of engagement on Facebook for the headline alone, and with the numbers suggesting those sharing the link may not even have read the article. So the headline plays an outsized role on Facebook and Think Progress should have exercised restraint with that component of the standard article, and not have tried to hide behind nuanced analyses and hedging syntax following in the body.

Fourth – While Nyhan makes a useful point about how it is Think Progress that is really resorting to the ‘liberal v. conservative’ defence, and not TWS, I think he falters in believing that fact-checking wasn’t exercised as a form of censorship here as well as in not considering if TWS itself may have stepped over the line.

Both these concerns are tied to how Facebook handles content that makes questionable claims. For example, Think Progress has alleged that:

When an article is labeled false under Facebook’s third-party fact-checking system, groups that share that article on Facebook receives a notification informing them that the article received a “False Rating” and that “pages and websites” that share that piece “will see their overall distribution and their ability to monetize and advertise removed.” Facebook’s notification regarding our piece on Kavanaugh and Roe v. Wade effectively warned outlets not to share ThinkProgress content or risk censorship themselves.

(I’m not on Facebook and can’t check for myself.)

Separately, Nyhan shared a screenshot of a message he had received when he attempted to share the Think Progress article:

Zuckerberg has also said that content marked as “fake” or “false” will be demoted on Facebook and rendered invisible to up to 80% of all the people who could have seen it otherwise.

My takeaways from these messages are the following:

  1. Facebook doesn’t care how wrong an article is – it can be entirely wrong or it can have one wrong sentence –, it will still be graded on a single-point scale (falseness: 0/1) instead of providing users with a more meaningful assessment of the problem.
  2. If an article is marked as “fake” or “false”, it will lose 80% of its audience. If this isn’t censorship, what is?
  3. The fact-checker gets to plonk its own article in front of another on the same topic but which it has deemed unreliable. Thus, given Facebook’s apparent intent to appease all sides, including TWS among its fact-checkers runs the risk of magnifying conservative voices over liberal ones. Can we expect that Facebook will soon include a liberal voice, you know, just to please everyone?

Fifth – The essential problem with treating the political right and political left on equal footing, as much as treating the social conservative and the social liberal on equal footing, is that such an equation contains a Trojan horse that most people don’t account for: the right/conservative frequently make claims and argue from a position that is not rooted in rational beliefs and, in the US, yearn for originalist interpretations of constitutional values. As I wrote two days ago,

As such, [a realistic ‘idea of India’] is hard to come by in the media because, as Ram Guha explains, it is unglamorous and difficult to sell, even as the press is the institution responsible for the viewpoint’s day-to-day distribution and maintenance. As a result, you get partisanship more often than deliberation. … It might be useful to clarify here that such deliberation is not between leftwing and rightwing vantages but between reason and reason. Unreason has no place here, nor does its conflation with partisanship. And it is often the case that the right is aligned with pseudoscience and illogic that it confuses resistance against unreason with resistance against itself. It is frustrating not because the pedantic distinction is lost in the muddle – who cares – but because the result is often that the leftists co-opt your turf simply because you’re not right enough.

A similar endeavour to co-opt territories has happened here: because Facebook screwed up its fact-checkers’ ability to respond meaningfully to an article that was partly flawed, it gave Think Progress the ammunition it needed to claim that it had been wronged by a conservative competitor. So an effort to appease both sides – as undertaken by Facebook, for example – will remain an appeasement and will never qualify as any kind of attempt at fairness. This doesn’t negate TWS’s calling out Think Progress as much as assert that Facebook is chiefly responsible for this mess being what it is.

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