The post-election “fake news” panic has borne fruit: “The Facebook feed is about to get fact-checked,” reports Advertising Age: “The social network on Thursday said it will implement new measures to combat the so-called fake news and lies spreading via its platform.”
(Article by James Taranto, republished from WSJ.com)
The report is explicit about the political agenda underlying the decision:
Facebook has been under intense scrutiny ever since Donald Trump’s victory in the presidential election, an upset that some say was at least partly fueled by a mess of misinformation on social media services including Facebook, Reddit and Twitter. . . .
Facebook is deputizing reputable, third-party fact-checking sites to label posts as “disputed,” a warning that will appear prominently in the Facebook feed and pop up when someone tries to share the post. The fact-check organizations include Snopes, FactCheck.org and Politifact, which are part of Poynter’s International Fact Checking Network.
According to Harvard’s Nieman Lab, ABC News and the Associated Press are also part of the effort.
Not everyone would agree with the characterization of these “fact-checking sites” as “reputable.” In particular, PolitiFact—a project of the Tampa Bay Times, with state affiliates associated with other newspapers—has a checkered history. Its work is frequently shoddy and partisan.
In 2013, as this column noted, the site named as its “Lie of the Year” President Obama’s promise “If you like your plan, you can keep your plan.” It’s hard to dispute that, but PolitiFact’s earlier write-ups had. In 2009 and again in 2012, it rated the claim “half true,” and before the 2008 election flatly “true.”
To be sure, in 2008 and 2009 the claim was not yet a lie, merely a promise; and in 2012 it was not a demonstrable lie, or at least not as clearly demonstrable as it was when policyholders had in fact started losing their plans. But it is difficult to understand how a categorical promise could be “half” true at any stage. (Maybe ObamaCare should be renamed Schrödinger’s Care.) And a promise is not a factual claim at all, so its truth or falsity is purely a matter of opinion.
Others have noted that PolitiFact has often given different ratings to what were substantively the same statements from different sources, usually with Democrats getting the benefit of the doubt when compared with Republicans. Example: In July 2015, Bernie Sanders said that for 17- to 20-year-old blacks, the “real unemployment rate” is 51%. PolitiFact rated that “mostly true.” In June 2016, Donald Trump said black youth unemployment is 59%, a figure PolitiFact called “eye-popping” and rated “mostly false.”
Both Sanders’s and Trump’s figures were at variance with the official unemployment rate, which for blacks between 16 and 19 was within a few points of 30% at the time of both write-ups. The denominator in that rate is the number of persons in the workforce—either employed or looking for work. Sanders and Trump based their figures on a different measure, the employment-population ratio, which includes persons who are not in the workforce.
Of Sanders, they observed that “his terminology was off, but the numbers he used check out, and his general point was correct—that in an apples-to-apples comparison, African-American youth have significantly worse prospects in the job market than either Hispanics or whites do.” As for Trump:
It appears likely [the figure] comes from a computation of all 16- to 24-year-old blacks who aren’t working and may not even want a job, including high school and college students.
Clearly, black youths have a harder time finding work than whites. But Trump exaggerates the issue through his misleading use of statistics.
Or consider the disparate treatment PolitiFact gave to the exact same claim from a Republican presidential candidate and a Democratic one. “Ron Paul says federal income tax rate was 0 percent until 1913” (2012); “Jim Webb says U.S. didn’t have income taxes until 1913” (2015). Somehow the former was only “half true,” while the latter was “mostly true.” (In fact, Congress enacted an income tax in 1862, which lasted until 1872; and again in 1894, which the Supreme Court held unconstitutional before it could take effect. The 16th Amendment was ratified in 1913.)
National Review’s Kevin Williamson offers another example, in which he was the target of a PolitiFact “fact check” the substance of which is too complicated to recapitulate here. He accuses the site of dishonesty even in describing its own reporting methods:
Politifact doubly embarrassed itself on the issue, first with the risibly sloppy and shockingly (if you don’t know very many reporters) lazy reporting habits of Louis Jacobson, who wrote that neither Jonah [Goldberg] nor I had “returned inquiries,” by which he means to say responded to them. He tried to contact Jonah by sending a single email to a rarely used public account, and me he tried to contact—if you can call it that—by tweeting that he was fact-checking something. I do not follow him on Twitter, having been contentedly unaware of his existence, and I do not follow Politifact, for that matter. I am not sure that what Jacobson did constituted an “inquiry” at all, but I am sure that it does not constitute “inquiries.” When I pointed this out . . . Jacobson responded in an odd way: by sending the same email again to Jonah the next morning, long after the piece had been published.
Read more at: WSJ.com