Facebook partners with Hebrew fact-checkers as campaign rhetoric heats up

The Whistle joins with the social media giant as it tries to grapple with misinformation and fake news ahead of elections, amid questions over its effectiveness

Sue Surkes is The Times of Israel's environment reporter.

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg makes the keynote address at F8, Facebook's developer conference in San Jose, Calif, on May 1, 2018. Facebook says it’s expanding its fact-checking program to include photos and videos as it fights fake news and misinformation on its service. (AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez, File)
Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg makes the keynote address at F8, Facebook's developer conference in San Jose, Calif, on May 1, 2018. Facebook says it’s expanding its fact-checking program to include photos and videos as it fights fake news and misinformation on its service. (AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez, File)

With just five weeks to go before Israel’s April 9 election, Facebook on Tuesday announced it was partnering with an Israeli fact-checking organization as it seeks to reduce misinformation and improve the quality of news featured on its platform.

However, with only five or so fact-checkers employed by the third-party organization and no plans for any immediate and significant increase in staff, it remains unclear how The Whistle (HaMashrokit in Hebrew) will be able to cope with an election campaign that is rife with distorted vitriol and fake news.

The Whistle will only monitor content in Hebrew for Facebook, which has been accused of having moderators evaluate content using Google Translate because they do not speak the language.

This week’s announcement followed another by Facebook’s Israel office last month that by mid-March — some three weeks before the national poll — it would roll out its political advertisement transparency tool. This will require all ads dealing with political issues to clearly state who paid for them after the identity and location of the payers has been verified.

Five days ago, having failed to persuade Facebook to move that date forward, Central Elections Committee chairman and Supreme Court Justice Hanan Melcer, banned anonymous election ads on all platforms effective immediately.

Facebook’s Sean Evins explains how transparent political ads will work, Facebook Israel, Tel Aviv, February 26, 2019. (Facebook)

The Whistle is a fact-checking organization which became part of the Globes business newspaper in January and currently produces one item in Hebrew each day analyzing the statements of a particular politician.

Now called The Whistle by Globes, it is the only Israeli fact-checking organization accredited by the International Fact-Checking Network, whose stamp of approval is a basic Facebook requirement.

It is also the 40th fact-checking body to partner with Facebook since the 2016 US presidential election, during which the media giant was discredited for having failed to stymie Russian meddling and fake news.

Boaz Rakocz, The Whistle’s founder and CEO. (Facebook)

Boaz Rakocz, The Whistle’s founder and CEO, told The Times of Israel that while the organization had plans to grow gradually, he could not provide specific numbers of fact-checkers at this stage. He would not comment on financial aspects of the deal with Facebook.

Globes emphasized in its own statement published in Hebrew on Tuesday that The Whistle’s work for Facebook would be separate from its work for the newspaper.

Facebook algorithms scan billions of posts each day in an attempt to flag misinformation before it gets passed around.

Flagged content is then passed onto human fact-checkers.

In Israel, they will be required to rank such content on one of five levels: where it is completely wrong; where it is mixed (the main argument is wrong but there are some accurate facts); where the title is misleading but the content is correct; where the content is accurate; and where the content cannot be graded because it is either satire or personal opinion.

According to Facebook, content rated as “false” is not taken down — that only happens if it contravenes Facebook community standards. Instead, it is pushed to a lower position on the news feed, and is accompanied by related articles by fact-checkers. If people try to share the content, they will be notified of the additional reporting.

Action is also taken against pages and domains that share the problematic content and domains that repeatedly publish content, which is rated “false,” Facebook says. Such pages and domains see their distribution reduced as the number of offenses increases and their ability to monetize and advertise is removed after repeated offenses.

Monetization includes models such as pay-per-click, according to which an advertiser pays a publisher (usually the website or website network owner) when the ad is clicked.

Finally, pages and websites that repeatedly publish or share false news will lose their ability to register as a news Page on Facebook, the company warns. If a registered news Page repeatedly shares false news, its news page registration will be revoked.

Fact-checkers are expected to respond to requests in a “reasonable time period — ideally one business day for a simple correction, and up to a few business days for more complex disputes.”

Facebook’s Head of Policy and Communications Jordana Cutler (left) and Israel Democracy Institute researcher Tehilla Shwartz Altshuler at the IDI’s Democracy in the Information Age program, January 18, 2018. (Oded Antman)

Jordana Cutler, Facebook’s head of public policy for Israel, said in a statement Tuesday, “We recognize the implications of false news on Facebook and we are committed to doing a better job to fight it, especially ahead of upcoming elections. More than six million people use Facebook every month across Israel so this is a responsibility that we take very seriously, and we’re looking forward to continue to build off of this in our fight against misinformation on our platform.”

‘One post a day’

There have been questions about the efficacy of Facebook’s fact-checking partnerships, and about the social media giant’s aims., which still works with the platform, told the Wall Street Journal in October that it reviewed an average of less than one Facebook post per day. Other fact-checking organizations doing the same kind of work echoed similar workloads.

Angie Drobnic Holan, editor of PolitiFact, also still working with Facebook, told the Guardian that the partnership was a “public service,” and that Facebook was “helping us identify questionable material.” But she also said that she had no way of knowing whether her site’s work was having an impact.

Facebook HQ’s fact-checking page carries the names of all third party organizations being used by the company worldwide, but missing from the US list are Snopes and the Associated Press, two fact-checking organizations that partnered with Facebook for two years until February.

Brooke Binkowski. (Facebook)

Interviewed by the Guardian newspaper in December, Brooke Binkowski, former managing editor of Snopes, said of Facebook, “They’re not taking anything seriously. They are more interested in making themselves look good and passing the buck … They clearly don’t care.”

She labeled the exercise as little more than “crisis PR” and said the fact that Facebook was paying Snopes created a “huge conflict of interest.”

Facebook paid Snopes $100,000 in 2017.

Snopes’ founder, David Mikkelson, told Geekwire that while Binkowski’s statements did not reflect the company’s official position, they did raise issues about the way Facebook deals with misinformation.

Snopes’ founder, David Mikkelson. (YouTube CNN screenshot)

“It’s pretty binary,” he told the tech website. “It’s true or false, and if it’s false then shouldn’t it be stopped entirely? I don’t really understand the philosophy of, ‘Well, we’ll leave it out there, just not as much.”

In a blog post last month, Snopes said it had not ruled out working with the platform in the future but wanted to “determine with certainty that our efforts to aid any particular platform are a net positive for our online community, publication, and staff.”

AP told the BBC that it was in “ongoing conversations” about working with Facebook in the future.

In response to the Guardian, Facebook said fact-checking was “highly effective in fighting misinformation,” and “when something is rated ‘false’ by a fact-checker, we’re able to reduce future impressions of that content by an average of 80%.”

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