“I was seeing them interfering on a global level in elections. I saw a blatant exception that just targeted conservatives or favored liberals—and you know, we’re deleting on average 300 posts or actioning 300 posts a day,” Read more
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Okay I’ll admit it. I still use Facebook. When I logged on last night I saw something I had never seen before: a notification that read “Partly false information found in your post by independent fact checkers.” I was surprised, but figured maybe it was a glitch or related to some joke meme I had posted or something like that. I clicked it to learn more.
Screenshot of the notification Facebook sent me.
It turned out that “Independent fact-checkers” at USA TODAY had flagged a VICE article that I shared, and am quoted in, about the reauthorization of the Patriot Act and the ongoing fight around amendments to rein in mass government surveillance. This is an issue that my organization, Fight for the Future, has been working on for the better part of a decade. The post now contains a prominent flag shown to everyone who sees it, effectively censoring the original article and replacing it with a large link to the USA TODAY “fact checking” piece instead.
I clicked through to read why exactly they had decided the article was “partly false.” When it comes down to it, the “independent fact checker” at USA TODAY was quibbling about semantics. The VICE headline read, “Senate Votes to Allow FBI to Look At Your Web Browsing History Without A Warrant.” The article is referring to the Senate passing the USA Freedom Reauthorization Act, which reauthorizes several Patriot Act and Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) surveillance authorities — while failing to pass an amendment offered by Senators Wyden (D-OR) and Daines (R-MT). The amendment would have required the FBI to get a warrant before snooping on Internet activity like web browsing and search history. The headline is provocative, but it is 100% true. And the article itself elaborates and explains the nuance. The fact checker is essentially claiming that the post is misinformation because the Senate didn’t “vote to allow” — they just “didn’t vote to not allow.”
Even if that were true, it would be a pretty tenuous justification for effectively censoring information on a platform used by billions of people. But it’s not true — the amendment was tacked on to the underlying bill, which reauthorizes FISA surveillance powers that are set to expire. So the Senators who voted to reauthorize Section 215, and voted against the amendment, absolutely did “vote to allow” warrantless government surveillance of Internet activity. The USA TODAY piece is significantly more “false” than the VICE piece.
Not only did Facebook put a notification on my post linking to a blatantly slanted “fact check” article, they sent a notification to everyone who interacted with the post, linking to the same.
It appears that the USA TODAY fact checker first discovered the VICE article via a viral post from the Facebook page “Being Libertarian.” The fact checker took issue with some of the specific language that that page used when sharing the article. But it appears that Facebook has applied the “partly false” flag not just to that page’s post, but to anyone who posts the same article.
The USA TODAY piece relies heavily on “an email exchange” with Stewart Baker, the former top lawyer for the National Security Agency and a staunch defender of mass government surveillance programs. They did not attempt to contact my organization Fight for the Future, or experts from the ACLU, Free Press, Demand Progress, or any of the dozens of other reputable civil society organizations who have issued public statements that closely mirror the article’s framing. It also does not appear that they attempted to contact Senators Wyden or Daines, VICE, or the journalist who wrote the piece. In the end, they claim that the article is “partly false” based on a fairly generous read of how the FISA court works and their best guess at how a reader might interpret the headline and article. Without due process or a meaningful way to appeal the decision, this “fact checker” became judge, jury, and executioner, killing the spread of an organically viral post about government surveillance at a time when activists are working around the clock to inform the public about an upcoming vote that impacts their most basic rights.
The outcry over the Senate vote had an impact, and the House is now expected to vote on a similar amendment in a matter of days. Facebook and their fact checking partner’s arbitrary decision to flag the VICE article as “misinformation” could have a significant impact on that vote.