Facebook has announced a news service aimed at providing users with a “personalized” slate of stories from four different types of categories: general, topical, local, and “diverse”:
Diversity publishers as those focused on key communities that fall under the five racial and ethnic groups defined by the US Census: Black/African-American, Latino/Hispanic, Asian, American Indian and Alaska Native and Native Hawaiian and Other Pacific Islander.
As Bloomberg News reported, around 200 news organizations will be included as part of the service. The social media platform is also reportedly paying some publishers between $1 million and $3 million per year for their participation.
“I think you want to have content that represents different perspectives, but is doing so in a way that complies with the standards we have for this,” CEO Mark Zuckerberg said at an event promoting the service on October 25, 2019.
Facebook said on its website that it is “looking at a broad range of integrity signals in determining product eligibility, including misinformation — as identified based on third-party fact checkers — community standards violations (e.g., hate speech), clickbait, engagement bait and scraped content.” CNN reported that the platform has refused to release a list of all the outlets included in the service.
However, organizations such as the Daily Caller (which operates Check Your Fact, a site that works as part of Facebook’s fact-checking initiative) and Breitbart (which is on Facebook’s list of approved news partners) have faced robust criticism based on several criteria; the independent outlet Media Bias/Fact Check (MBFC) has rated the right-wing blog as a questionable media source “based on extreme right wing bias, publication of conspiracy theories and propaganda as well as numerous false claims.” MBFC also noted that numerous Breitbart stories had been marked as false by sites belonging to the International Fact-Checking Network.
MFBC editor-in-chief and owner Dave Van Zandt said that users should “absolutely” be concerned by their inclusion in the service, citing not only its multiple failed fact checks but the site’s penchant for spreading disinformation.
“I cannot fathom what Facebook is thinking,” Van Zandt told us:
Are they trying to cater to the alt-right as a means of providing balance? If so, then why not add a communist news source as well. I understand they want representation from the right, but this is not the source. Why not National Review, American Conservative or even the Washington Examiner (though they too failed a few fact checks)?
The International Fact-Checking Network (also known as IFCN) is currently partnering with Facebook on a project geared toward stopping the spread of disinformation online. Facebook chief executive officer Mark Zuckerberg invoked the IFCN while testifying before the House Financial Services Committee on October 23, 2019, telling Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York that IFCN certification was required for sites taking part in the fact-checking project, which includes a blog owned by the Daily Caller. That site, Media Bias/Fact Check notes, not only has a strong far-right bias, but more importantly has published numerous articles that have failed basic fact-checking assessments.
However, there is no indication that Breitbart has been certified by IFCN; the fact-checking network had at one point included it in a list of “unreliable news websites” in April 2019. IFCN’s parent organization, the Poynter Institute, later retracted the list, citing inconsistencies.
For its part, Breitbart has run stories criticizing Poynter for receiving funding from billionaire George Soros, a frequent target for far-right anti-Semitic conspiracy theories — and who Facebook also hired an outside firm to “research” for a possible smear campaign after he criticized the social media network in early 2018:
Elliot Schrage, Facebook’s outgoing head of communications and policy, took responsibility for hiring Definers Public Affairs in a memo first reported by TechCrunch and subsequently published as a blog post on the eve of the US Thanksgiving holiday.
Both Mark Zuckerberg and Sheryl Sandberg had disavowed knowledge of the firm’s hiring in comments to the press.
“Did we ask them to do work on George Soros?” the memo reads. “Yes.”
Schrage explained that the work on Soros was two-pronged. After Soros characterized Facebook and Google as a “menace to society” in a speech at the World Economic Forum in Davos in January 2018, Facebook asked Definers to perform research because it “wanted to determine if he had any financial motivation”.
Breitbart also has a history of publishing inflammatory content catering to white nationalists or people identifying themselves as “alt-right”; former executive chairman Steve Bannon, for example, boasted during the 2016 Republican National Convention that the site was “the platform for the alt-right.” At the time, Bannon was campaign director for Republican Party nominee Donald Trump, who would go on to become president of the United States.
As the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) reported in April 2016:
Breitbart’s Alt-Right primer, published at the end of March, is possibly its most disturbing piece to date. The piece ignores the racist views of the Alt-Right founders — white nationalists Richard Spencer, Jared Taylor and others — instead referring to them as the movement’s “intellectuals.” The piece is a striking example of the direction the network has moved over the past year.
Breitbart’s unabashed support for Donald Trump, a candidate whose campaign has helped to mobilize and mainstream racist activists online, has had internal ramifications at Breitbart. In March, a number of journalists and editor, Ben Shaprio, quit after one of its reporters, Michelle Fields, was assaulted by Trump campaign manager Cory Lewandowski. The former Breitbart employees were disgusted at the company’s lack of support for their journalist after the incident.
The SPLC has also reported that Breitbart became a haven for white supremacists during Bannon’s time running the site, as well as “a major clearinghouse” for Islamophobic content. Social media users criticizing Breitbart’s inclusion also noted that it has featured a tab for stories about what it called “Black Crime.”
Facebook and Breitbart also share a common link in tech magnate Robert Mercer, who reportedly introduced Bannon to Trump, and who served as a major shareholder in the blog before selling his shares to his daughters in November 2017. Mercer also founded the data analysis company Cambridge Analytica, which was at the center of a scandal involving the harvesting of data for millions of Facebook users without their consent.
During his October 2019 House testimony, Zuckerberg told Ocasio-Cortez that he had heard about the wrongful data handling “around the time [the news] became public … around March of 2018.” But as The Guardian reported, Facebook officials knew about the issue dating back to September 2015. It “became public” when the news outlet first reported on it in December of that year.
We contacted Facebook to ask how it chooses sites to be part of their new news service and whether Breitbart would be paid for its participation. The company has yet to respond.