Facebook recently instituted a fact-checking system aimed at preventing the spread of misinformation on the service.
But the company's treatment of a recent Think Progress piece suggests the initiative is half-baked, at best. What's more, it threatens to filter out the kind of provocative commentary that contributes to people's understanding of current events.
On Sunday, Think Progress published an article about Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh's views on Roe v. Wade. The headline read as follows: "Brett Kavanaugh said he would kill Roe v. Wade last week and almost no one noticed."
Kavanaugh didn't literally voice the words, "I will kill Roe v. Wade" to the Senate. But the Think Progress article argues that his answers during confirmation hearings, combined with his prior statements about Constitutional rights, demonstrate that he will vote to overturn Roe v. Wade.
Specifically, Kavanaugh praised the 1997 decision in Washington v. Glucksberg to the Senate. That decision held that people don't have a Constitutional right to physician-assisted suicide. In the ruling, the Supreme Court took a narrow view of "unenumerated rights" -- meaning rights like the right to abortion, enshrined by Roe v. Wade, that aren't explicitly mentioned in the Constitution. Kavanaugh also reportedly said last year that "even a first-year law student" would say the 1997 Glucksberg ruling goes against Roe v. Wade.
The right-wing Weekly Standard, one of Facebook's new fact-checkers, flagged the article as false because Kavanaugh didn't literally state he would vote to overturn Roe v. Wade.
The impact of that designation could be devastating -- especially for sites that rely on Facebook for traffic. The company says articles designated as "false" are demoted and lose 80% of their future views.
Think Progress now argues The Weekly Standard has no business serving as a fact-checker for Facebook. "If Facebook continues its partnership with The Weekly Standard, the consequences could be quite severe for left-leaning outlets generally -- or potentially for any other outlet which publishes a news article that The Weekly Standard disagrees with," Think Progress wrote Tuesday.
Think Progress has a legitimate grievance here, especially given that its article clearly analyzed Kavanaugh's prior statements. But the problem for Facebook and its users goes beyond this one article. Facebook, in its haste to eliminate fake news from its platform, outsourced the job without fully thinking through the differences between misinformation and commentary, facts and interpretation.
Earlier today, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg boasted that the new fact-checking system will help root out "viral hoaxes." The problem is, it might also suppress legitimate journalism.