UPDATE: Facebook’s fact-checker has removed the “false” designation regarding my original Beirut story. Mafindo wrote this reply to my appeal:
We have removed the flag, referring to your…articles and due to currently we have no ways of gaining access to ground sources like you do.
Thank you for your correction articles, apologies for the inconveniences caused by this incident.
We will use this as a reference for our future fact check to enhance our internal processes of fact checking issues with similar patterns (such as related to overseas breaking news/issues).
Many news reports have criticized the process by which Facebook determines what is fake news. Among them are that it uses third-party fact-checkers who themselves peddle lies and fake news on their own web sites. A case in point is The Daily Caller, until recently owned by Tucker Carlson, FoxNews’ white supremacist host. The site is known itself for reporting hoaxes and racist screeds. Facebook signed an agreement with a Daily Caller affiliate to become one of its fact-checking partners. The fact-checking decisions made by the affiliate itself became mired in controversy when it caught liberal publications in its net and labeled their reporting false. The judgements made were dubious and clearly biased.
The push to secure the support of right-wing sites for Facebook’s content moderation is the baby of the company’s far-right public affairs guru, Joel Kaplan, a fixture in Republican national politics for many years. Kaplan has come under fierce criticism for moving the platform in a rightward direction both through cultivating close ties with Donald Trump, and offering right-wing sites favorable treatment on the social media platform.
One of the earliest third-party fact-checkers, Snopes, ended its relationship with Facebook in frustration. The Guardian quoted other fact-checkers claiming they felt their work was ignored and produced “minimal results.
Facebook’s right-wing fact-checkers have struck again. But this time the Daily Caller isn’t the culprit. It’s an obscure Indonesian “anti-hoax” outfit called Mafindo, one of whose researchers published a post on its website declaring my reporting about Israel’s role in the Beirut disaster to be “false.” As a result, my own post and any other Facebook user who republishes it are covered by a screen preventing access to the content. The screen decrees the report has been labeled false, but offers no support for the decision.
Israel did not bomb Beirut, Lebanon. So far it is known that the explosion in Beirut was caused by a chemical reaction of ammonium nitrate, as stated by the President of Lebanon, Michel Aoun.
In fact, Pres. Aoun’s statements about the Beirut tragedy changed from his first one to later statements he made which conceded a “foreign actor” may have caused the incident.
In a separate posting justifying the labeling of Ronnie Barkan’s reposting of my report as a hoax, he writes:
From the search results, the claim that Israel bombed Beirut, Lebanon on 04/8/2020 is false. Israel itself has dismissed the prejudices of the bombers in Beirut, Lebanon. “Israel has nothing to do with the incident,” said the official, who asked not to be named, as reported by Reuters.com, Wednesday (05/08/2020).
In addition, according to TheGuardian.com report, the Prime Minister of Lebanon, Hassan Diab said 2,700 tonnes of ammonium nitrate was the cause of the explosion due to negligence of storage in an unsafe warehouse for 6 years. This was also confirmed by the President of Lebanon, Michel Aoun in the BBC.com news.
So far there has been no official information regarding Israel’s allegation of being behind the explosion in Beirut, Lebanon. President Aoun promised to conduct a transparent investigation into the blast incident in Beirut.
“With determination we will carry out an investigation and reveal the circumstances surrounding what happened as soon as possible and arrest whoever was responsible and whoever was negligent and sentenced them to the harshest punishment,” Aoun told bcc.com reporter Wednesday (07/08/2020) after a visit to a ruined port.
From the search above, the claims that Israel bombed Beirut, Lebanon are included in Misleading Content. This is because there are no facts about Israel’s involvement in the Beirut explosion.
Using the denial of an Israeli official of the country’s involvement in the attack as a basis for determining the truth, is ludicrous. This blog alone has recounted scores of such statements by government officials which were lies, including this one about Beirut.
The claim that the prime minister declared the tragedy the result of an explosion of ammonium nitrate is only half-true. Multiple sources and media outlets have correctly noted that the main blast did not happen spontaneously, but rather through an initial explosion. My own Israeli sources says that was due to an Israeli attack on a Hezbollah arms warehouse near the fertilizer storage facility.
Finally, the claim that there are “no facts” about Israel’s involvement in the Beirut explosion is based on ignorance of media reporting on this story. As I’ve noted here, Asia Times published its own report based on Lebanese intelligence sources naming Israel as a likely culprit. This story also confirmed that there were two explosions (not one) and that the first was likely the detonation of military munitions stored in the port by Hezbollah.
Returning to Mafindo, how does a lone researcher based in Indonesia determine a story about Lebanon is false? Does he know anything about Israel or Lebanon? Does he consult sources familiar with these countries? Does he have any personal expertise on the subject of the story itself? No to all these questions. He sits somewhere in Indonesia and makes a cursory check of a few foreign news outlets, doesn’t read the original report I wrote, and determines by fiat that my work is false. It’s an outrage.
Facebook claims that its fact-checkers have been approved by an independent program run by the Poynter Institute. However, it appears that Poynter, which generally has a good reputation for probity and transparency is woefully misguided in crediting Mafindo as a credible judge of fact and fiction in news.
In fact, the Poynter site declares:
“Mafindo is registered as an organization with one main aim to fight dissemination of hoax in Indonesia.
I could possibly credit it as an authority on matters concerning Indonesia. But as an authority on Israeli national security issues? Hardly. This, in turn points out a fundamental flaw in both Poynter’s system of credentialing these organizations and Facebook’s reliance on both Poynter and the fact-checkers themselves as authorities. How does Poynter determine that an organization specializing in hoaxes in Indonesia is competent to expose hoaxes in international news reporting? How does it determine that Mafindo has the expertise and research capacity to do this?
I have written to the Facebook press team protesting Mafindo’s decision and also followed the complaint procedure offered by Facebook to communicate directly with Mafindo. Neither has yet responded.
Returning to Joel Kaplan, he has devised a rather clever way of inserting right-wing bias into the fact-checking program. He appoints right-wing outlets into the program so that neither he nor Facebook itself has to be blamed for censoring progressive content. The company can shift blame from itself to the independent sources who make the determination (indeed, there is no opportunity to complain directly to Facebook about such decisions). If the third-party itself has a bias that motivates its decisions, that’s of little concern to Facebook: it can turn to Poynter and say that its sterling reputation shields it from any blame.
The outcome of this is that progressive news sources are smeared with false claims and our reporting is denigrated unfairly. This is censorship in the guise of protecting media integrity and upholding truth. In this case, it does precisely the opposite: it suppresses legitimate journalism and the truth.
Silverstein has published Tikun Olam since 2003, It exposes the secrets of the Israeli national security state. He lives in Seattle, but his heart is in the east. He publishes regularly at Middle East Eye, the New Arab, and Jacobin Magazine. His work has also appeared in Al Jazeera English, The Nation, Truthout and other outlets.