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Science & Technology

Facebook's Partnership With Fact-Checkers Gets Off To A Rocky Start


One year ago, Facebook announced with much fanfare that it was going to bring in fact checkers from respected journalism groups to combat the fake news epidemic. Some of these journalists describe how the partnership got off to a rocky start and how they still feel left in the dark about what impact, if any, their work actually has. We should note Facebook does pay NPR and other media outlets for video content. Here's NPR's Aarti Shahani.

AARTI SHAHANI, BYLINE: Factcheck.org is, as the name spells out, a fact-checking nonprofit. It's based at the University of Pennsylvania and is 1 of 5 partners Facebook featured when it rolled out the initiative in December 2016.

EUGENE KIELY: Yes, we started agreeing to work with Facebook in December, but we didn't have any resources to expand our staff to do that.

SHAHANI: That's FactCheck director Eugene Kiely. Facebook, one of the largest companies on earth, is meticulous when rolling out new products. Current and former employees have told NPR about the way engineers pore over code for live video or messenger, making sure it lives up to the promise and troubleshooting very, very quickly. But in this case, there wasn't even a budget line for months.

KIELY: It wasn't until June when we got funding from Facebook.

SHAHANI: He used the money to hire Saranac Hale Spencer, who had previously worked for a legal newspaper covering federal courts and then a Gannett paper in Delaware. She says this job is definitely different.

SARANAC HALE SPENCER: You know, you're reading the fiction that other people have written and, you know, sort of taking it point by point and, you know, debunking each false thing, you know, that's been said.

SHAHANI: How does it feel?

SPENCER: (Laughter) Oh, goodness. That's a difficult one.

SHAHANI: Here's how her work day starts. She logs into Facebook and goes to a special dashboard. It shows links users have flagged as fake news ranked by popularity. So Spencer has a sense of what's getting a lot of attention. A few days ago, just before Tuesday's Senate election in Alabama, she saw fake news stories about candidate Roy Moore trending.

SPENCER: So there were a couple of stories that had sort of made-up characters.

SHAHANI: The story said two women who accused Moore of pedophilia were caught lying.

SPENCER: Those two women didn't even exist.

SHAHANI: Spencer and her team found that, contrary to the fake news claims, there was no MSNBC interview or any TV interview record for that matter. And the picture in the article was actually of a British reality TV star just after a very painful pregnancy.

SPENCER: And, you know, she was weeping. So it was, you know, a picture of a woman in distress.

SHAHANI: It takes Spencer about one full day of work to debunk the fake news. She submits her fact-checked article to Facebook on the eve of an election the entire country is watching. Clearly, this is important work. But that's separate from whether or not the work has an impact. I ask a question about her fact-checking article, to which director Eugene Kiely responds.

How many eyeballs has it reached? Do you know?

KIELY: We don't know.

SHAHANI: You're not given that feedback?

KIELY: No. No, we don't - once we submit it to Facebook, they do whatever they do with our material.

SHAHANI: Meaning Facebook does not tell the fact checkers how many times their work product reaches users compared with how many times the fake news reaches them - could be 1 to 2 or 1 to 10 or 1 to 100,000. Facebook says that's proprietary data not for outsiders, even partners, to know. Factcheck.org and others in this partnership have asked Facebook for more transparency. But even if he's kept in the dark, Kiely says, he knows there is a reach.

KIELY: However many people that may be, it's certainly better than nothing.

SHAHANI: In this way, the fact-check project exposes an ongoing question. Seasoned journalists in newsrooms are torn about whether participation with Facebook, in fact checking, in sharing content on news feed, in live video is grabbing a seat at an important table or giving cover to a broken relationship. A Facebook spokesperson says the fact checkers are valuable to the company, and Facebook will provide them with additional tools and metrics in the new year. Aarti Shahani, NPR News, San Francisco.

(SOUNDBITE OF AMBINATE'S "SHOULD") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.