Pressure from Capitol Hill has seen social media companies tasked with the serious crackdown on “fake news,” the loosely defined term covering everything from outright falsehoods to slightly misleading content alleged to have somehow cost former Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton the 2016 presidential election. Playing the dutiful whipping boys to big government, Silicon Valley tech giants such as Facebook have decided to editorialize their users’ news experience through third-party fact-checking websites — using entities with their own set of factual problems.
Among the list of these supposed trusted fact-checkers is Snopes.com, the disgraced media watchdog known for inaccurate, partisan behavior and most recently “fact-checking” a satire piece published by the Christian comedy site The Babylon Bee. According to The Federalist, the satire site published a humorous article about how CNN, the president’s favorite news channel to mock, had recently purchased an “industrial-size washing machine to spin news before publication”:
“ATLANTA, GA — In order to aid the news station in preparing stories for consumption, popular news media organization CNN purchased an industrial-sized washing machine to help its journalists and news anchors spin the news before publication.
The custom-made device allows CNN reporters to load just the facts of a given issue, turn a dial to “spin cycle,” and within five minutes, receive a nearly unrecognizable version of the story that’s been spun to fit with the news station’s agenda.
One reporter was seen inserting the facts of a recent news story early Thursday morning.”
This story, to the surprise of literally no one except sad sacks on Capitol Hill, Silicon Valley, and the mainstream media, is just a silly joke. Despite punching up at one of the biggest, most heavily criticized institutions in modern journalism, using goofy paragraphs and photoshopped images to clearly indicate humor is at play, it was ultimately Facebook’s decision to deliver a tense threat to the comedians’ revenue stream.
Babylon founder and editor Adam Ford was issued a warning of further “demonetization,” reduced viewership reach and potential advertising removal for their publishing of this “disputed info.”
Really, Facebook?? pic.twitter.com/HEtBc7C0Gz— Adam Ford (@Adam4d) March 2, 2018
“A page you admin (The Babylon Bee) recently posted the link (CNN Purchases Industrial-Sized Washing Machine to Spin News Before Publication) that contains info disputed by (Snopes.com), an independent fact checker,” Facebook wrote, soon laying out their ultimatum. “Repeat offenders will see their distribution reduced and their ability to monetize and advertised removed.”
American users were also given a warning before clicking on the article, resulting in Facebook’s pop-up window which reads:
So I clicked on the headline and Facebook gave me this. pic.twitter.com/793CqTRwdB— Roger for Christ (@MrB_Loves_Jesus) March 2, 2018
“Before you share this content, you might want to know that there is additional reporting on this from Snopes.com.”
Speaking to The Daily Caller last week, Ford told journalist Anders Hagstrom:
“Snopes has ‘fact-checked’ several of our articles before, but this is the first time Facebook has used that to threaten us with reduced reach and demonetization.”
Snopes, who have previously fact-checked The Babylon Bee over 13 times, acknowledged in the footnote of their fact-check that the website is purely satire aimed at a predominantly Christian-conservative audience, followed by their claim that some unknown users “missed that aspect of the article and interpreted it literally.”
This fact, however, was not initially checked by Facebook, forced to issue an apology via a statement to The Daily Caller, claiming both the threat and warnings were a “mistake” only meant to target news deemed “false”:
“There’s a difference between false news and satire. This was a mistake and should not have been rated false in our system. It’s since been corrected and won’t count against the domain in any way.”
Only this isn’t entirely true.
Later that day, The Daily Caller released an article detailing how the social media site was still fact-checking the satire piece.
In early December, Facebook’s Product Manager Tessa Lyons made an announcement that the company would be using the related articles section and a fact checker label in their organized “fight against false news” —both of which still in place under the original Babylon article.
I find this so funny. pic.twitter.com/lfDBj4OVW7— Nathan Hall (@Nate0fAmericans) March 2, 2018
This raises questions about whether Facebook is serious about protecting free expression, particularly comedy and political content from independent outlets, in their fight against fake news and their monopolizing of the Facebook-approved truth. Censorship, evidently, has slipped through this criticized tech industry in more ways than one.
Under a 10,000-manned “trusted flagger” system, fellow tech giant YouTube has seen the fallible behavior of potentially partisan men, given the most recent #YouTubePurge scandal that saw the temporary removal and suspension of countless non-progressive accounts they also claimed came about because of a “mistake.”
Alternatively, Facebook’s algorithm is artificial, but not necessarily intelligent. CNN reported earlier this year that former New York Times veteran turned Facebook’s Head of News Products Alex Hardiman wanted the platform to “redefine its relationship” with news publishers in an effort to “minimize the bad” and “promote quality”—an effort thus far has proved unsuccessful.
Hardiman began by saying:
“For us, we historically within Facebook did not distinguish between different types of news, and that was problematic. Flattening the news meant you couldn’t always tell the difference between something that was trusted and credible, versus something fraudulent.”
This developed into the announcement of a $3 million investment in a “publication accelerator program,” said to be a “three-month pilot program in the United States to help metro newspapers take their digital subscription business to a new level” though sparing the actual details. CNN’s Brian Stelter, a critic of Facebook, noted the investment is scraps coming from a company which recently hit $13 billion in revenue last year.
Until then, recent changes to the Facebook algorithm have been a death sentence to certain content creators, given the prioritizing of family posts over news content that has resulted in numerous layoffs across online media. Among the deceased companies was LittleThings, a feel-good 100-employee-strong small business forced to close up shop for the loss in revenue Facebook’s policy changes caused. In their rather sad statement reported by Breitbart, former president of LittleThings Gretchen Tibbits explained:
“We’re disappointed. It’s their platform… But until earlier this month, what we were doing was working.
The brand safety was a huge selling point for us, but the flip is, our audience is women over 30 in middle America, and they’re not sexy [for advertisers].
For our audience, there’s not another platform right now… There are 100 great, talented people who were here and doing content that resonated with an audience that’s just harder to find right now.”
Layoffs didn’t just stop at the little guy.
Earlier last month, Funny Or Die writer Matt Klinman told SplitSider that the recent changes had “completely destroyed independent comedy” following the removal of 30% of their workforce due to revenue loss. In his own words:
“There is simply no money in making comedy online anymore. Facebook has completely destroyed independent digital comedy and we need to fucking talk about it.
It was increasingly clear to me that this is not a management problem or a problem with the content that they are making. The problem was that the whole business model made no sense, as far as us just putting the stuff up on the internet and us being able to make a living on it.
I was just angry and frustrated and sad that you can’t make cool shit for the internet anymore and make a living.”
Klinman concluded that Facebook’s monopoly on power “has created a centrally designed internet,” deciding “that’s a lamer, shittier looking internet.”
The comedian continued:
“It’s just not as cool as an internet that is a big, chaotic space filled with tons of independently operating websites who are able to make a living because they make something cool that people want to see. Facebook is essentially running a payola scam where you have to pay them if you want your own fans to see your content.”
This phenomenon has crossed over into the political realm. According to a new study by The Outline, changes to the algorithm have seen conservative sites in Breitbart News and Fox decline in engagements while competitors such as CNN and The New York Times have fluctuated along standard patterns.
The New York Times
According to a new report from Fast Company, following politicians pressuring the site to crack down on how they’ve engaged with the wider world, Facebook users are also spending up to 24% less time on the platform than prior to the site’s changes last year. Yet this hasn’t stopped the social media giant from further escalating their editorial decision, at the request of influential politicians.
This week, BBC News reported that the Facebook page for the far-right, anti-Islam Britain First Party was removed for allegedly breaking the terms of service — a move that was supported by London’s Muslim mayor Sadiq Khan and Conservative Prime Minister Theresa May, urging other tech giants to follow suit in the removal of “hate speech.”
The group’s leaders, Paul Golding and Jayda Fransen, were recently convicted of “racially aggravated harassment” and “religiously aggravated harassment” pertaining to the 2016 “campaign” of harassment against four Afghan males who were convicted of gang-raping a lost 16-year-old girl in Kent, England, as well as others “not directly involved in the rape case.”
Khan, having denounced them as racist, even expressed his support for German censorship policies, which last year saw 36 users face five-year jail sentences for Facebook posts. As the Merkel government is currently toying with policies that could fine Facebook and Twitter up to $50M for violating hate speech laws, Khan showed his support saying:
“Germany is an example of where the German government said ‘Enough. Unless you take down hate messages, unless you take down fake news, we will fine you’. I want to work with the tech companies, but you have to be responsible.”
Faced with calls to combat “fake news” and terrorism, with equal outrage for the stomping on free speech for audiences big and small, the social media giant may have to learn the hard way they just can’t please them all.