Facebook Hit With Defamation Suit Over Fact-Checks

Facebook's fact-checking program, instituted soon after the November 2016 election, has once again landed the company in court.

On Thursday, journalist John Stossel alleged in a lawsuit that he was defamed by Facebook's fact-checks, which flagged one video he posted as “misleading” and a second as “partly false.”

“Stossel was given no meaningful avenue to contest these unilateral decisions about the truth of his journalism,” his lawyers write in a complaint filed in U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California. “Meanwhile, his viewership plummeted due to both Facebook’s censorship and the reputational harm caused by the false labels.”

He says that Facebook and its fact-checking partners defamed him “with malice.”

“First, they attributed to Stossel a claim he did not make, and which caused his viewers to shun him,” he writes. “Then, defendants falsely labeled Stossel’s second video report as having failed a 'fact-check' and stated that it contained 'factual inaccuracies' and was 'partly false.' Defendants applied these labels, knowing full well that Stossel’s content contained not a single false fact.”

One of the videos at the center of his complaint was posted to Facebook on September 22 of 2020.

In that five-minute clip, he argues that politicians have blamed the fires on climate change, but that “foolish policies” -- including decisions to put out small fires -- were the biggest cause of the devastating wildfires.

The video, which includes an interview with Michael Shellenberger -- a controversial environmentalist known for espousing contrarian views -- argues that “tens of thousands” of fires that should have naturally burned were extinguished, resulting in overgrowth.

“While climate change is a problem, Shellenberger’s new book explains, it’s not an apocalypse,” Stossel states in the clip.

Soon after the clip was posted, Facebook posted a fact-check overlay stating that the video was “missing context.”

People who clicked on that fact-check were taken to a page operated by Climate Feedback, which said the claim in Stossel's video was “misleading.”

That page summarized the claim in the video as follows: “Forest fires are caused by poor management. Not by climate change.”

Stossel counters in his complaint that he never made such a claim, and that the video “repeatedly confirms the opposite: that climate change is one of the causes of forest fires.”

“Defendants’ false attribution and public condemnation of Stossel’s reporting has led naturally to Stossel’s viewership feeling duped and betrayed,” his complaint asserts.

“As a journalist who relies primarily on Facebook to communicate with his audience, the false statements and the curtailing of his viewership caused immediate and irreparable harm to Stossel’s professional reputation, as well as financial harm,” he asserts in the complaint.

This isn't the first time Facebook has been hauled into court over its fact-checking program.

Among other instances, the company Maffick, which operates the social media pages “In the Now,” “Soapbox,” and “Waste-Ed,” recently sued Facebook for attaching a label reading “Russia state-controlled media” to its channels.

Maffick's claims included libel, interference with contracts and violations of a federal law regarding false advertising.

In June, a federal judge dismissed the claims on the grounds that the allegations, even if true, wouldn't show that Facebook violated the federal false advertising law. That judge also declined to allow Maffick to proceed in federal court over the defamation claim, which was rooted in state law.

Also, the group Children's Health Defense -- which is frequently described as anti-vaccine -- claims that Facebook's fact-checking policies violated the First Amendment. That group sued Facebook last year for telling users that some vaccine-related posts may contain false or misleading information, and restricting the spread of those posts.

A trial judge dismissed that case earlier this year. Children's Health Defense recently said it was appealing that decision.

Facebook has not yet responded to MediaPost's request for comment about Stossel's lawsuit.

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