"Disinformation" Can Sort Itself Out

COMMENTARY Technology

"Disinformation" Can Sort Itself Out

Oct 9th, 2019 4 min read

Commentary By

John W. York, Ph.D.

Policy Analyst

Hans A. von Spakovsky @HvonSpakovsky

Election Law Reform Initiative and Senior Legal Fellow

Facebook is right to recognize the vagaries of so-called “fact-checking” and its profound, potentially misleading influence on our public discourse. coffeekai/Getty Images

Key Takeaways

Facebook’s refusal to "fact-check" political speech has the DNC up in arms.

Even the most well-meaning effort to fact-check political statements is likely to be hamstrung by subjectivity.

The thorniest political battles are usually not between truth-tellers and liars, but between rival camps who disagree about which facts are most relevant.

Facebook recently stated that it will neither censor nor “fact-check” statements by politicians on their site. This is great for political speech but — apparently — unwelcome news to the leadership of at least one of the major political parties.

The Democratic National Committee slammed Facebook’s decision, arguing that “Trump has an utter disregard for the truth” and that “social media platforms have a responsibility to protect our democracy and counter disinformation online.”

This is only the most recent effort by leftist politicians to goad social-media companies into silencing conservative politicians and anyone else they disagree with.

Several weeks ago, we warned that Federal Election Commission chairwoman Ellen Weintraub (D) was convening representatives from Facebook, Twitter, and Google to pressure them into “fighting the disinformation that risks further corroding our democracy.” In other words, to appoint themselves as Big Brother — with her approval — to censor political speech and reporting on elections and hot-button issues.

It’s a heartening sign that at least one of those social-media platforms has wisely decided that less is more when it comes to policing and censoring political speech and the global Internet arena where so many Americans today gather information and news and debate, discuss, argue, and vigorously contest the public issues of the day. To its credit, Facebook seems to appreciate, much more than some progressive politicians, the value of robust political discourse and the danger of vague limitations on political speech.

“I know some people will say we should go further,” Facebook executive Nick Clegg said, seemingly referring to left-leaning critics. “But imagine the reverse. Would it be acceptable to society at large to have a private company in effect become a self-appointed referee for everything that politicians say?” Clegg asked rhetorically. “I don’t believe it would be.”

Clegg went on to clarify how Facebook views its role vis-à-vis political speech: “To use tennis as an analogy, our job is to make sure the court is ready — the surface is flat, the lines painted, the net at the correct height. But we don’t pick up a racket and start playing. How the players play the game is up to them, not us.”

With political discourse, as with sports, Facebook’s “let ’em play” approach is for the best. Attempts to tightly referee political discourse often devolve into partisan point-scoring.

As peer-reviewed academic studies show, so-called media “fact-checkers” have a strong track record of partisan bias. Indeed, one very popular fact-checker, Politifact, rated Republicans as more deceptive than Democrats at a rate of about 3 to 1, with no rational justification explaining that discrepancy.

Even the most well-meaning effort to fact-check political statements is likely to be hamstrung by subjectivity. When researchers look at the way mainstream fact-checkers rated the exact same statements by politicians, they found very low agreement. It is difficult to explain that disagreement as due to anything other than the differing personal political opinions and biases of the fact-checkers.

This is especially true with statements and stories deemed to be partially true. Too often, so-called fact-checkers use ambiguous, in-between categories for stories and statements that get the facts right, but that they nonetheless find misleading because the targets of their fact-checking leave out some supposedly “relevant” information.

Politicians sometimes exaggerate, flub the numbers, or even lie intentionally to deceive the public. When they do, it’s fair to call them out on it. But it’s not fair to keep them from speaking at all. The thorniest political battles are usually not between truth-tellers and liars, but between rival camps who disagree about which facts are most relevant.

Kellyanne Conway’s phrase “alternative facts” may be ripe for parody, but it is not Orwellian double-speak. Very often one side is armed with facts, and the other side is armed with a different set of facts. Their political disagreement usually focuses on which set of facts is most important to the issue at hand.

For instance, where progressives point to rising income inequality and the rising cost of health care, conservatives emphasize the importance of improved material conditions at every income level and the rapid pace of medical innovation that is making us a healthier society. Neither side’s facts may be wrong, but opposing sides often disagree on the relevance, meaning, and importance of those facts.

Too often, fact-checkers mislabel as a lie any statement that does not emphasize the facts supporting their own biases and opinions about an issue.

Facebook is right to recognize the vagaries of so-called “fact-checking” and its profound, potentially misleading influence on our public discourse. It correctly perceives the danger of appointing itself as the all-seeing Big Brother who will regulate, censor, and decide what information and what political speech is acceptable.

While Facebook has taken heat from both the right and the left of late, its hands-off approach is praiseworthy and should be followed by all the social-media platforms that dominate the Internet and are used by the public.

Nick Clegg got it exactly right when he said it isn’t Facebook’s job to “prevent a politician’s speech from reaching its audience and being subject to public debate and scrutiny.” “In open democracies,” he added, “voters rightly believe ... they should be able to judge what politicians say themselves.”

Too bad the DNC and FEC commissioner Weintraub don’t have the same faith in the ability of the American public to make their own decisions.

The piece originally appeared in the National Review