Perhaps it was a response to the US Senate hearings with Mark Zuckerberg, or perhaps it was because of the alarming reports of widespread violence related to its content—or maybe it was just because it was the right thing to do—but earlier this month, Facebook announced that it was taking on the services of third-party fact-checkers to help verify and rate news shared through their social media platform.
That the designated fact-checkers in the Philippines were Rappler and VERA Files predictably sparked protest from certain sectors of the internet. There were calls to leave Facebook, and, just a few days after the announcement, the government lodged its protest via a statement from Presidential Communications Operations Office (PCOO) assistant secretary Lorraine Badoy, who said, "We would also like to register our protest at the choice of fact-checkers by Facebook and this will be on the agenda when we finally get to sit with them soon."
This solution is definitely not a silver bullet, admits Clair Deevy, Facebook’s director for community affairs for Asia Pacific, but adds that the company is working to combat the spread of fake news on a number of fronts, from internal policy to media literacy education.
The system has only been rolled out in the Philippines for less than two weeks now, and users are only beginning to understand its nuances. It's early days yet, but here are some facts—both hopeful and not—about the initiative.
1| Facebook works with organizations accredited with Poynter, a non-partisan International Fact-Checking Network. Most of the outcry following Facebook's announcement seems to revolve around what ASec Badoy called "the choice of fact-checkers by Facebook." Deevy emphasizes Facebook's partnership with the International Fact-Checking Network (IFCN) within Poynter, a non-profit that works with journalists around the world. Being a signatory to the IFCN's principles is a prerequisite for being a fact-checking partner for Facebook; membership also comes with rigorous vetting by Poynter. Facebook has repeatedly said that they are open to working with partners other than Rappler and VERA Files—as long as, we assume, they're able to get accreditation from Poynter.
2| Fake news will be placed lower on the News Feed, "significantly reducing the chances of you seeing it." News stories that are flagged on Facebook will be reviewed by fact-checkers who will rate the accuracy of the story. Fact-checkers have six options for rating a story: True; False; Not Rated; Mixture (either there are falsehoods mixed in with some facts, or the article is misleading or incomplete); Not Eligible ("the information in the article is not eligible to be fact checked, but may still benefit from additional context"—this includes satire, opinion, and polls); and Prank Generator, for websites that allow users to create their own “prank” news stories to share on social media sites.
3| Facebook users will get an alert if they've shared false news. Your irresponsible tito or tita will get a notification whenever they try to share a story, or even if they've shared one in the past, that have been flagged as fake by the third-party fact-checkers. This will be the same for Page Admins who share false news.
4| Fact-checking does not depend on numbers. Deevy also confirmed that having users report a news story as false will not automatically mark it as fake news. While users may report a story and trigger a fact check, multiple reports will have no bearing on the rating itself.
5| The system not only alerts users to fake news, but it also provides more helpful context. The third-party fact-checkers may also write articles to give further context to the fake news stories, which will then appear as a "Related Article" immediately below the flagged story.
6| Facebook Pages that repeatedly share false news will be penalized. These Pages will see their reach greatly reduced and their ability to monetize and advertise on Facebook removed. (Lookin' at you, certain Facebook "blogs".)
7| We're not the first country to have this system. In fact, according to its partners like Politifact and Poynter, the Facebook initiative launched in 2016. But Facebook doubled the number of countries involved in the initiative just in the past month, and the Philippines joins countries like Mexico, India, Colombia, and Indonesia in the most recent round.
Facebook concedes that the system isn't perfect, but that the company is both open to taking in more fact-checking partners, and is always updating its process as weaknesses come to light. A few things to know now:
1| Facebook fact-checkers only look at linked news stories, not at comments or posts. Not only does this mean that your fake news-posting titos and titas will still be able to write their long rants on Facebook, but it also exposes the system to a potentially big loophole. Fake news can still be spread through screencapped articles and—something we learned from Free Basics users—stories that are cut-and-paste into posts or comments.
2| Stories that are rated false are not removed from Facebook. Since Facebook does not want to play the role of censor, fake news articles will still exist on Facebook—they'll just be pushed lower on the News Feed. This won't stamp out the spread of fake news, but hopefully this will reduce its reach and impact.
3| Facebook pays its fact-checkers, and will not discuss the details of the arrangement. This isn't bad in itself—of course the partner companies need to be paid for a service that feeds into Facebook's services—but it's not hard to imagine how this can be spun as evidence that the fact-checkers are not independent of Facebook.
4| The best way to fight fake news still rests on individual media literacy. While Facebook lists tips to spot fake news, this can only be effective with real-life reinforcement. Which means: There's no substitute for taking time to sit down for patient discussion your fake news-loving relatives.