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One of Facebook's high-profile fact-checking partners is not renewing its contract with the social network -- dealing a blow to a program Facebook executives have said is a key line of defense in their fight against disinformation.
Snopes, a company well-known for debunking online myths, said Friday it's ending a partnership it began with Facebook in December 2016 after the presidential election highlighted that the social network could be exploited by bad actors, such as Russia, to disseminate false information. Facebook's technology flagged potentially false stories to fact-checking partners such as Snopes, who were then paid to provide a rating of the story's accuracy. Facebook said it used those ratings to demote false stories in News Feed, and to notify users trying to share inaccurate information that stories had been disputed.
It was no longer practical for Snopes to participate in the partnership, Snopes Vice President of Operations Vinny Green told me, because having such a high-profile deal with one company prevented Snopes from doing fact-checking work around the rest of the Internet. He said Facebook needed to create better digital tools for fact-checking posts -- and that the largely manual process was too labor-intensive. There were also unanticipated public relations costs associated with the partnership, he said.
“As a small mom-and-pop organization, we are taking on an extreme burden that is disproportionate to the other individual in this partnership,” said Green, noting his views of the relationship with Facebook were not reflective of all Snopes employees.
Snopes's departure shows how difficult it is for third-party organizations to bear the weight associated with fact-checking the avalanche of stories on Facebook. Its criticisms of the social network's cumbersome fact-checking process could increase lawmakers' scrutiny of the investments Facebook itself is making in combating disinformation — especially as the 2020 election approaches and Democrats promise security will be a top priority.
Facebook has tried to have its cake and eat it too by touting the fact it's investing in efforts to crackdown on disinformation while leaving the tough calls up to third-parties. But that strategy won't work if it can't keep its partners happy.
Another key partner, the Associated Press, also reportedly halted its fact-checking for Facebook, according to a BBC report on Saturday. The AP is engaged in “ongoing” conversations about the future of its contract with the social network, the BBC said.
“AP is in talks with Facebook and we fully expect to be doing fact-check work for Facebook in 2019,” an AP spokeswoman told me. And the Wall Street Journal reported in October that ABC News, another initial U.S. fact-checking partner, dropped out.
A Facebook spokeswoman told me the company valued the work that Snopes has done for the fact-checking program, and that it plans to expand the program, which includes 34 partners across 16 languages, in 2019. “Fighting misinformation takes a multipronged approach from across the industry,” the Facebook spokeswoman said. “We are committed to fighting this through many tactics, and the work that third-party fact-checkers do is a valued and important piece of this effort.”
Still, issues with the fact-checking program could increase Facebook chief executive Mark Zuckerberg's political headaches, at a time when the company is already under fire for data privacy scandals and its response to revelations of election-meddling on its platform. Facebook has never wanted to be regulated as a media company and has tried to avoid playing the role of an online censor. But under intense pressure, the social network says it has invested in technology, such as algorithms, that can identify coordinated disinformation campaigns, and it regularly takes action to stamp out such accounts.
More than two years in to this effort, Snopes's departure indicates Facebook still needs to do more to define what it means for the company to leave up such significant decisions to third parties.
“Of course, the nature of this partnership effort requires that the participating fact-checking organizations be independent of Facebook (and each other),” said Snopes founder David Mikkelson. “But how these organizations can be both truly independent of Facebook and yet also be 'partners' is something we don't feel has been effectively worked out.”
The Guardian previously reported on individual journalists ramping up pressure on organizations to cut ties with the program after they lost faith that Facebook was taking the initiative seriously.
“They’ve essentially used us for crisis PR,” Brooke Binkowski, former managing editor of Snopes, told the Guardian. “They’re not taking anything seriously. They are more interested in making themselves look good and passing the buck … They clearly don’t care.”
The Wall Street Journal also reported last year that the third-party fact-checkers were playing a “limited” role in the run-up to the 2018 midterms. One partner, Factcheck.org, said the company debunks less than one post a day.
Snopes’s decision to pull out of its partnership with Facebook was not intended “to hold Facebook to task,” Mikkelson told me. After Snopes’s contract with the social network expired in December, Facebook was not responsive to the concerns Snopes raised in discussions about renewing the contract, Mikkelson said. Given the lack of response, Mikkelson felt Snopes had to make the decision public because it was still being referred to as a fact-checking partner in media reports.
Green also said that Snopes’s decision does not mean the program is ineffective, but he did say Facebook needed to make more investments in the program, especially when it came to the technology behind it.
“The promotion of this initiative is disproportionate to the investment I’d like to see in the program,” he told me.
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BITS: The Federal Communications Commission faced hard questions from federal judges over the agency's decision to repeal net neutrality rules last year, The Washington Post's Brian Fung reported. The FCC tried to dispel accusations that it ran afoul of the law when it repealed net neutrality rules for Internet providers. On the other side of the legal fight, state and local officials, consumer groups and tech companies want the judges to revoke the FCC's decision.
Judges on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit pressed Tom Johnson, general counsel for the FCC, about whether the repeal could hamper the work of public safety officials including first responders, my colleague reported. Johnson and the judges also wrestled over whether states can enact their own stricter net neutrality rules.
“Judge Stephen Williams at several points leaped in to supply Johnson with credible arguments, reserving much of his critical questioning for opponents of the FCC,” Brian wrote. “Williams pointed out, in one debate over the source of the FCC’s powers, that the agency could still rely on different sources of authority even if the ones used to justify the net neutrality repeal were ultimately rejected by the court.”
NIBBLES: A top Irish data protection official said her agency is targeting Facebook in seven data protection investigations in Ireland, Bloomberg News's Stephanie Bodoni reported. Helen Dixon, Ireland’s data protection commissioner, also said that the Facebook probes are part of 16 cases against tech giants such as Facebook's WhatsApp and Instagram, Twitter, Apple and LinkedIn.
“Companies are lawyering up and we’re typically dealing with more litigators and lawyers on the side of any inquiry that we conduct,” Dixon told Bloomberg News. “It does show the power that they have in terms of the size. But we have all the cards in terms of the powers to investigate, to compel and ultimately to conclude and make findings.” European regulators have intensified their scrutiny of tech companies since the European Union's General Data Protection Regulation went into effect.
Dixon said that being able to threaten companies with a “very big punitive fine is a very useful tool.” She also said that the first decisions in cases that her agency is pursuing could be made this summer, Bloomberg News reported. “We’re at various concrete stages in all of them, but they’re all substantially advanced,” she said.
BYTES: The results of Google's annual survey on employee satisfaction showed a decrease in the proportion of workers who expressed confidence in the company's leadership team compared to the previous year, Wired's Nitasha Tiku reported. In the latest survey, 74 percent of employees responded “positive” in late 2018 when asked whether they had confidence in chief executive Sundar Pichai and his team to “effectively lead in the future,” compared to 92 percent who replied “positive” the year prior.
The survey also indicated that the proportion of employees who said they were satisfied with their pay had decreased: It showed that 54 percent of respondents said they were satisfied with their compensation, compared to 64 percent who responded that way the year before. “They could totally afford to pay people a living wage,” Stephanie Parker, who works in policy for YouTube, told Tiku. “They’ve said multiple times, ‘We’re leading the market, what we do other companies follow.’ OK, then pay your people. Other companies will follow.”
— Apple said it will issue a software update following a FaceTime glitch and apologized for the flaw, the Wall Street Journal's Tripp Mickle reported. “We sincerely apologize to our customers who were affected and all who were concerned about this security issue,” a spokesman for Apple said Friday in a statement. “We appreciate everyone’s patience as we complete this process.” The glitch allowed a user to listen in on another user while the recipient's device was ringing by calling them in a group conversation.
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But the company sought guidance from governments for situations in which artificial intelligence systems should explain their decisions. Google also discussed the issue of balancing the roles of humans and artificial intelligence in decision-making. “The company also invites government to consider whether some AI regulation should in fact constrain humans, for example by barring them from turning off AI safety systems that may be more reliable than people,” Wired reported.
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- The New America think tank holds a discussion on “the future of spectrum auctions and 5G” tomorrow.
- CompTIA DC Fly-In technology conference in Washington tomorrow through Wednesday.
- Senate Commerce Committee hearing on 5G and technology innovation on Wednesday.
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