As they quietly severed their relationship there are details the fact-checkers want to keep from getting out.

It bears all the earmarks of Hollywood nuptials. The announced pairing was trumpeted in the press, PR notices fired all over, and warm projections of a blossoming relationship were headlined. Then as the union finally crumbles a curt request to respect their privacy at this time is barely dashed off. This being a media affair that dissolved is the only difference.

It was late on a Friday, during the noted document-dump time frame, that the announcement came that Snopes, the famed verification website, was pulling out of its agreement with Facebook. Following the 2016 Presidential election, to much media fanfare, Snopes had joined in on the highly touted venture started by the social media titan to get control over “fake news” on its platform. The results of that effort have been judged to be MOSTLY MIXED.

Now two years later that effort at correcting false narratives, purging fake stories, and dealing with the troll-like nature of coordinated propaganda is appearing to be a miasma of misinformation. A number of those who participated have expressed their problems in working with FB and the flawed nature of the platform to police the news narrative.

     A Flickering Interrogation Lamp
When the announcement came out earlier this month it was not made immediately clear why Snopes was electing to leave the project. At the time of the announcement Facebook had gathered together near 40 journalism outlets worldwide to work on the news verification initiative. All seemed to be operating as Facebook intended, and the statement from Snopes was not immediately clear.

Calling the decision “A difficult, but necessary change for Snopes in 2019,” the official comment from the site hinted at the issue. “At this time we are evaluating the ramifications and costs of providing third-party fact-checking services, and we want to determine with certainty that our efforts to aid any particular platform are a net positive for our online community, publication, and staff.”

It does end up being revealed that financial considerations were behind the decision, but it also appears to have been rooted in a questionable arrangement for the site at the start. As revealed in the official comment, when they set up the partnership in 2016 Snopes “volunteered” initially to enter into the exploratory fact-checking effort, with no offer of payment. Eventually a compensation with Facebook was reached, and the site was paid $100,000 over the course of 2017.

However since then internal concerns over the partnership, and how it was affecting Snopes as an entity were rising. The verification work became a labor intensive process that favored FB over Snopes. Due to the mounting work struggles a managing editor and a fact-checker left over the FB arrangement. Snopes ended its work at the end of its contract in December, and spent January trying to renegotiate for a better system. That recent announcement indicated no agreement could be reached.

The initial problem is the process that FB has in place means selected work originates with its own internal algorithm. First a potential story becomes flagged by the FB program and it is then sent out to the fact-checkers to verify. They in turn have to work on the piece and manually enter it into the FB interface. Not only does this constitute added work but that algorithm does not differentiate the source.

Pieces sent to fact-checkers are not predetermined to be news stories with errors, stories containing factual inaccuracies, pieces originating from satirical or humor websites, or those created as outright fabrication. This lack of determination created a backlash for Snopes. At times the workers were “debunking” stories that were from clear satirical outlets, and this would lead to commenters mocking them for taking things seriously that were never intended to be regarded that way.

This unnecessary work combined with the laborious entry procedure meant that the slim 16 person fact-checking squad at Snopes found itself stretched thin. It was increasingly difficult to keep up with the FB demands, all while still operating its site and generating its own content. That workload with a minimal amount of return for the effort meant Snopes found itself in an untenable spot.

 

     Only The Facts They Deem Fit To Print
In December, weeks prior to the ending of the Snopes contract term, The Guardian spoke with Brooke Binkowski, that managing editor who departed Snopes over the Facebook issues. Beyond just an overtaxed workforce she cited a number of systemic issues with the FB fact-check initiative.

One primary issue is that the social media site is less focused on its application of fact-checking than it is being perceived as doing the needed work. According to Binkowski, the purpose of the verification program was to serve as a PR tool – and possibly a means of deflecting responsibility. “They are more interested in making themselves look good and passing the buck … They clearly don’t care.” This view echoed words from another fact-checker, made a year earlier. “They think of us as doing their work for them. They have a big problem, and they are leaning on other organizations to clean up after them.”

These perceptions hold up when coupled with previously reported stories on the effectiveness of the work initiative. One problem is that the news gatherers are not being given data to show them results of their efforts, which would give them tools to allow them to modify and improve their methodology. As another worker noted, while they are furiously working blind the fake stories were still going viral.

One other study found that tagging a news item as “unverified” by outside press sources had little to no influence on consumers. The Yale University study found that flagging news items as “false” only impacted a reader’s perception by a few percentage points. Further, the presence of them flagging what was only a small fraction of stories lent more heft to those stories not addressed; if readers saw there was no “false” designation it was more likely to be held as truthful, even if no peer review took place.

Binkowski even alluded to another tactic Facebook may have been resorting to that skewed the effectiveness of fact-checking even more — targeted results. She states that she saw what appeared to be an effort by FB to steer the fact-checkers to focus on stories that would have an effect on its advertisers. When it comes to debunking reports that had a negative impact on promotional partners this alters the perception of the work. “You’re not doing journalism any more. You’re doing propaganda,” said Binkowski.

The Snopes CEO David Mikkelson disputes this claim, dismissing that it is the view of a former employee, and one who was not involved in daily work of that nature. However it does have the tone of someone trying himself to debunk what he wants to declare “fake” content. Mikkelson has stated they left the possibility open to renegotiate a deal with the Facebook mavens.

As more digital news providers are coming under financial strain it stands to reason he would be interested in bringing back those lost revenues to Snopes. Linking this desire, with Facebook seeming to be driving its verification based on profit, and you have the potential for more “fake” problems. That profit motive puts the machinations in place to create a falsified news narrative, rather the means to combat such.