A conservative news organization has been approved to partner with Facebook to fact-check false news, drawing criticisms that the social media company is caving to rightwing pressures and collaborating with a publication that has previously spread propaganda.
The Weekly Standard, a conservative opinion magazine, said it is joining a fact-checking initiative that Facebook launched last year aimed at debunking fake news on the site with the help of outside journalists. The Weekly Standard will be the first right-leaning news organization and explicitly partisan group to do fact-checks for Facebook, prompting backlash from progressive organizations, who have argued that the magazine has a history of publishing questionable content.
News of the Weekly Standard’s involvement comes as Facebook and other tech companies are continuing to face intense scrutiny over their role in disseminating false content and propaganda and aiding Russian efforts to interfere with US politics. Shortly after Donald Trump was elected, Facebook responded to outrage about fake news by saying it would empower journalists from reputable outlets to flag false articles, which would then get a “disputed” tag to warn users.
Some of the third-party media partners – which include reporters from the Associated Press and ABC News, and journalists from the fact-checking organizations Snopes, PolitiFact and FactCheck.org – have alleged that the project is largely failing to have an impact. Facebook has repeatedly refused to release meaningful data on the success of the journalists’ debunking efforts and has insisted that it is a platform and not a media publisher or “arbiter of truth”.
Alexios Mantzarlis, director of the International Fact-Checking Network (IFCN) at Poynter, which verifies Facebook’s third-party fact-checkers, said it approved the Weekly Standard because the publication agreed to the IFCN code of principles. The magazine also has a fact-checking operation that is not associated with political parties or advocacy organizations and has committed not to write opinion pieces, he said.
The conservative pundits Bill Kristol, Fred Barnes and John Podhoretz launched the Weekly Standard in 1995, with support from the media mogul Rupert Murdoch, aimed at countering successful liberal publications, such as the Nation. During last year’s presidential campaign, the magazine was aligned with the #NeverTrump movement and has recently sought to expand its fact-checking efforts.
Though the Weekly Standard is distinct from far-right publications like Breitbart that are known for publishing propaganda and misinformation, some have questioned whether it was an appropriate partner for Facebook given its ideological bent.
“I’m really disheartened and disturbed by this,” said Angelo Carusone, president of Media Matters for America, a progressive watchdog group that published numerous criticisms of the Weekly Standard after the partnership was first rumored in October. “They have described themselves as an opinion magazine. They are supposed to be thought leaders.”
In recent years, the magazine also faced backlash for giving a platform to a contrarian climate scientist and for sending an anti-gay marketing email warning of the “homosexual lobby” and its “perverted vision for a homosexual America”.
Stephen Hayes, the Weekly Standard’s editor-in-chief, told the Guardian in an email that the publication had been “formally” doing fact-checking for six months and had hired “an incredibly sharp” fact-checker, Holmes Lybrand. He added: “The work really does speak for itself.”
Hayes praised Facebook for working with rightwing journalists: “I think it’s a good move for [Facebook] to partner with conservative outlets that do real reporting and emphasize facts. Our fact-checking isn’t going to seek conservative facts because we don’t believe there are ‘conservative facts’. Facts are facts.”
A Facebook spokesperson declined to comment on the Weekly Standard, but told the Guardian: “We continue to believe that objective facts are objective facts. The political provenance of a given source is irrelevant if their reporting is factual … At Facebook, providing access to authentically fact-checked content is one of our top priorities and is just one of the tools we use to fight fake news.”
Brooke Binkowski, managing editor of the Facebook fact-checking partner Snopes.com, said she didn’t have specific concerns about the Weekly Standard, but was worried about the broader implications of Facebook choosing to rely on a partisan conservative outlet.
“If you’re going to be politicizing facts, no good can come of that,” she said. “What they are saying is we consider you to be liberal. It doesn’t give us a lot of credit for being trained, being transparent.”
Last year, Facebook fired its team responsible for “trending” topics after it was accused of being biased against conservatives. Without human moderators, the algorithms promoted false stories and offensive content. The company’s CEO, Mark Zuckerberg, subsequently met with prominent rightwing leaders to address the backlash.