The author, a senior disinformation researcher at Northeastern University's Civic AI lab (Boston), argues that in this age of big tech and disinformation, fact-checking organizations are in dire need of effective legal oversight...
The past few years have seen a proliferation of online misinformation, accompanied by the growth of the fact-checking industry. This industry has evolved into a matured sector with its own funding sources and investments from major companies, which may have their own agendas. These companies are actively seeking to influence and control the industry, highlighting the need for public oversight to safeguard the value of truth in society.
Fact-checking organizations and platforms have emerged worldwide. Duke’s reporter lab’s annual consensus reports 391 active fact-checking projects in over 105 countries. Media organizations account for half of these efforts, while 37 are affiliated with non-profit groups, think tanks, and non-governmental organizations, and 26 are affiliated with academic institutions. It’s worth noting that the majority of these organizations are located in Europe and North America.
The funding sources for fact-checking organizations mainly include direct individual contributions, big tech companies like Facebook and Google, online advertisements, grants from non-government organizations, and, in some cases, paid exclusive fact-checking services for followers. Notably, a significant portion of the funding comes from big tech companies.
Several big tech companies have initiated partnership programs with fact-checking organizations. These programs involve fact-checkers identifying and examining circulated posts and news containing false information. The results are then shared with the tech companies, who use fact-checking reports to automate the identification of false content. For instance, Facebook downranks posts on the newsfeed based on these reports and includes a link to the fact-checking report. Google informs users about related content when they search and provides a fact-checking database search tool. TikTok also announced its partnership with fact-checkers to take steps in removing provocative content, though specific details of their system were not disclosed.
However, these partnership programs lack transparency and require ongoing scrutiny and public oversight. Facebook, for example, launched its partnership with fact-checking organizations in 2016, including 80 organizations in 60 languages. Facebook pays these organizations for automated fact-checking on the platform and has invested $84 million in the effort since the program’s inception. The company retains the final say on content removal, even if fact-checking organizations rate it as false. The automated systems used by Facebook also prioritize what should be fact-checked, raising concerns that stories with high engagement may not be debunked due to their profitability. The algorithm determining the queue for fact-checking is opaque, limiting practical corrections when it veers out of control. A recent news report revealed a bug in Facebook’s news feed that surfaced harmful content, including boosted content reviewed by fact-checkers.
Facebook’s problematic practices extend to fact-checking reports submitted by organizations through the partnership program. There have been documented cases where the company’s managers directly intervene to change the final verdicts decided by fact-checking organizations. Furthermore, Facebook relaxed its fact-checking rules to allow conservative pages repeatedly spreading misinformation, undermining the objectivity and neutrality of the program.
To lend credibility to these practices, tech companies require participating fact-checking organizations to be signatories of the International Fact-checking Network Code of Principles. This code mandates adherence to principles like objectivity and transparency of funding sources. However, the network appears reluctant to address previous violations by big tech companies and merely welcomes their utilization of the code. Notably, Facebook and Google are among the funders of the Poynter Institute, which manages the Network, creating a situation where the organization overseeing the industry is influenced by those it’s supposed to regulate. Recently, the International Fact-checking Network received a $1 million donation from WhatsApp to support fact-checking efforts against COVID-19 misinformation. Consequently, the network serves as the primary channel for money flow from Facebook to the entire fact-checking industry.
The lack of transparent funding drives some fact-checking organizations to engage in deceptive practices. In August 2021, the co-founder of Snopes, a well-known fact-checking organization, admitted to publishing plagiarized articles to increase traffic and generate more revenue from online ads.
These issues are not isolated incidents or technical problems that can be easily resolved as automated systems evolve. They stem from an incentive structure driven primarily by a flawed business model that upholds the power of big tech companies and online advertisements over the fact-checking industry.
Fact-checking organizations play a crucial role in protecting society against the spread of misinformation. However, the expansion of dubious funding into the industry poses a looming danger. If the public loses trust in these organizations, we may enter a post-fact-checking world where misinformation fills the vacuum.
It is imperative to reimagine these organizations as public goods and rethink funding sources that come directly from society. Congress should consider legislation that includes the following measures:
- Ensure the independence of fact-checking organizations by providing them with sufficient annual funding for their basic operations. This requires a clear definition of eligible fact-checking organizations and their adherence to agreed-upon codes of conduct.
- Prohibit big tech companies from intervening in the fact-checking process by altering final verdicts. Once a fact-checking organization produces a final decision on a claim, the tech platform should not be able to change the rating or language used in the fact-checking report.
- Require fact-checking organizations to disclose all technical details regarding their partnerships with tech companies and other entities. This includes sharing any internal evaluations made by these organizations regarding the partnerships.
- Mandate fact-checking organizations to disclose all sources of funding and any potential conflicts of interest. An annual breakdown of all donors should be readily accessible.
- Demand full public disclosure from big tech companies on how the AI systems associated with the fact-checking process function, operate, and prioritize and rank claims. The procedures shared should be interpretable by policymakers and researchers for evaluation.
In an era when big tech companies and online ads influence our perception of truth, we must question not only the facts themselves but also the processes and environments that shape them. Proper legal interventions are necessary to protect the value of truth and ensure the transparent flow of information in society.
Mohamed Suliman is a senior researcher at the Northeastern University civic AI lab. He also holds a degree in Engineering from the University of Khartoum
Suggested citation: Mohamed Suliman, The Case for a Fact-Checking Independence Act, JURIST – Academic Commentary, June 14, 2023, https://www.jurist.org/commentary/2023/06/fact-check-oversight/.
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