It took just hours after a Washington Free Beacon report on a Biden administration plan to distribute crack pipes to drug addicts at taxpayer expense for the Facebook fact-checkers to mobilize.
In a "fact check" titled "Biden Administration Is NOT Funding ‘Crack Pipes, Heroin' For Drug Use," Lead Stories—a prominent member of Facebook's third-party fact-checking program—concluded the Free Beacon report was "not true." Lead Stories based its determination on Health and Human Services Secretary Xavier Becerra's declaration, made days after the report elicited considerable blowback, that as Lead Stories phrased it, "none of the federal funds for harm reduction programs for drug addicts can be used to provide crack pipes."
"While a description of the HHS grants stated that the grantees would be required to buy materials like safe smoking kits and supplies to ‘enhance harm reduction efforts,' such kits and supplies are just a few of the many materials that grantees can utilize," Lead Stories added. The fact-checking system at Facebook, which I saw first hand during my time as a software engineer on Facebook's "Misinformation" fact-checking team between 2019 and 2021, hands monumental power to supposedly nonpartisan fact-checking organizations to quash legitimate news.
According to the original Free Beacon report, President Joe Biden's Department of Health and Human Services planned to implement a $30 million grant program that included the distribution of "safe smoking kits" to drug addicts. A spokesman for the administration told the Free Beacon that these "safe smoking kits" would—like many other similar existing kits across the nation—include pipes for the use of "any illicit substance." Another Facebook fact-checker, AFP Fact Check, also concluded the "U.S. grant program is not funding crack pipes for addicts."
As a result of this wave of fact-checking activity, Facebook posts linking to the Free Beacon report were tagged as "Partly False," thereby "significantly" reducing the "content's distribution so that fewer people see it," according to Facebook's own fact-checking policy.
The Free Beacon tried to fight the decision, but complaints fell on deaf ears. Lead Stories editor in chief Alan Duke insisted he had no responsibility to contact the Free Beacon before making a determination, which relied exclusively on the word of Biden administration officials. That's right: Lead Stories diminished the story's distribution on Facebook based on the word of Biden administration officials whose policies were suddenly under scrutiny.
"Your fact check on Lead Stories led to our highly trafficked piece being removed from Facebook. Is there a reason you didn't bother reaching out to our reporter or anybody at the Free Beacon?" the Free Beacon‘s executive editor, Brent Scher, asked Duke.
"Your article may be ‘highly trafficked' but it is also highly false," Duke, a former CNN reporter, responded. "Please let us know when you have updated it with the correct information, as shared in our article."
Duke, whose Twitter profile describes him as a "Facebook fact-checker," added that his duties required him only to contact government spokesmen—not the Free Beacon.
In this case, by "correct information," Lead Stories meant retroactive statements from government officials, including Sarah Lovenheim, an assistant secretary for public affairs at the Department of Health and Human Services, who called the Free Beacon report "blatant misinformation," as well as the claims of another HHS spokesman who called the piece "misleading and misinformed."
The crack pipe brouhaha raises a central question: Why is Lead Stories qualified to make these determinations in the first place, particularly when it and other fact-checking organizations routinely ignore the undeniable fact that politicians lie—especially when they've been caught? Moreover, why did Lead Stories ignore the fact that both its fact check and the original Free Beacon report effectively relied on the same source, especially when we consider that the subsequent political fallout could impact the Biden administration's public position?
Silicon Valley uses fact-checking organizations to shield itself from responsibility and wash its hands of political pressures to focus on financial objectives. Meanwhile, organizations like Lead Stories can pursue their financial and ideological hobby horses. Indeed, Lead Stories says the "bulk of our revenue originated from our work done as part of Facebook's Third-Party Fact Checking Partnership" in 2021, through its self-described focus on "trending stories," adding that "Facebook pays us to perform this service for them but they have no say or influence over what we fact-check or what our conclusions are, nor do they want to."
Fact-checking organizations enjoy independence regarding "what [they] fact-check or what [their] conclusions are," but that independence is dangerous when we consider their partisanship and the enormous power Silicon Valley has handed them.
The protective cycle of evasion makes recourse impossible. When the fact-checker doesn't care, and the Big Tech platform doesn't want to know, there is nowhere else to turn. The fact-checkers know this, allowing them to profit from the fact-checking system while using their relationships with Big Tech to exert control over the political narrative. But it is also worth noting how futile their efforts are: The Free Beacon report on crack pipes spread everywhere despite the best efforts of the Facebook hall monitors.
That said, as long as Facebook is able to evade responsibility, there is no reason to believe that a handful of left-wing journalists drunk on a little power will exercise it responsibly—or willingly surrender it.