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Facebook's 'fake news' labels under fire from right

12/19/2016, 6 a.m.
As Facebook introduces "fake news" warning labels, the social network faces a fundamental problem: Some of its users don't trust ...
Facebook's main login page John Sanders/CNN

As Facebook introduces "fake news" warning labels, the social network faces a fundamental problem: Some of its users don't trust the fact-checkers.

There was an immediate uproar, led by right-wing web sites, when Facebook announced the labeling plan on Thursday.

Some of Facebook's partners were denounced as partisan, partly by writers and commentators who are partisans themselves. It's the continuation of a long-running online fight about fact-checking in the age of information warfare.

The overarching fear expressed by some of the writers is that what begins as reasonable flagging of hoaxes could devolve into damaging cover-ups of conservative political opinions.

Facebook says it is moving carefully and taking steps to ensure that the warning labels are not misused.

But even before the labels started to show up on the social network, The Drudge Report's banner headline about the Facebook plan was "RISE OF TRUTH POLICE!" The headline linked to a story on Infowars, the conspiratorial web site led by far-right-wing host Alex Jones. The Infowars story predicted that Facebook would probably "use the new feature to blacklist information that runs contrary to any mainstream media narratives."

Jones tried to connect the labeling effort to the CIA and the United Nations.

By Friday, the notion that Facebook's warning labels would be part of the "fake news" problem, not the solution, permeated many right-wing sites. Some sources raised the prospect of involvement by liberal billionaire George Soros.

Facebook's response was to refer back to what CEO Mark Zuckerberg said in a Thursday afternoon Facebook post. "I understand how sensitive this is and I have instructed our team to proceed carefully and focus on fighting spam, not flagging opinions," he wrote.

The plan calls for "flags" to be appended to 100% bogus stories shared by users. A popular made-up story during the election, saying Pope Francis had endorsed Donald Trump, would be accompanied by a red label that says "disputed by 3rd Party Fact-Checkers."

Facebook says it is not deciding what's true or false. The deciders are fact-checking groups that have committed to the International Fact Checking Code of Principles, which was recently established by Poynter.

"We'll use the reports from our community, along with other signals, to send stories to these organizations," Facebook VP Adam Mosseri said Thursday. "If the fact checking organizations identify a story as fake, it will get flagged as disputed and there will be a link to the corresponding article explaining why."

So the focus of criticism is on the selection of those fact-checkers.

Breitbart's headline on Thursday was "MASTERS OF UNIVERSE DECREE: WE DECIDE WHAT'S 'FAKE NEWS.'"

Breitbart received widespread attention during the 2016 election for its support of Trump's candidacy. On Thursday it wrote that Snopes, ABC News, Politifact, and FactCheck.org all "have records of left-wing partisanship."

PolitiFact responded to the dust-up in a series of tweets on Thursday.

"If you don't know us, we're neither liberal nor conservative. Our simple goal: Check facts. We always list sources, explain reasoning," the group said. "Make sure your read our fact-checks for yourself before you decide if we are biased or not."