The world’s largest social network, Facebook, has announced that it has partnered with Africa Check and French news organisation AFP to provide third-party fact-checking services in an effort to combat fake news and other false or misleading content on the platform in South Africa. The company also launched third-party fact checking in Kenya yesterday.
If you’re even remotely interesting in South African news and current affairs you’ve probably heard of Africa Check. It’s a fact-checking organisation based at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg. Facebook won’t comment on the terms of the contract with the Africa Check or AFP, how many researchers are involved, or what it’s spending on the new initiative, and says that it also doesn’t want to comment on the specifics of how many stories it expects to vet a day, in case bad actors try — as they inevitably will — to game the system.
Not the “arbiters of truth”
Facebook’s quick to suggest that, despite these moves to control the reach of content on its platform based on its perceived voracity, it doesn’t want to be the “arbiter of truth”.
It says content will only be outright removed if it explicitly violates Facebook’s community guidelines. If a story is deemed false by fact-checkers, it’ll be down-ranked, and its reach on the platform will be limited. Users that try to share problematic content, for example, will receive a pop-up notification warning them that the content has been identified and flagged as containing falsehoods and — when available — will be presented with links to related stories that Facebook considers more legitimate.
Publishers that repeatedly post content marked as false or problematic will be notified, their problematic articles will be demoted, and in extreme cases of repeat offences, their ad and monetisation rights will be revoked and their page could be permanently shutdown. Publishers that are flagged will be able to lodge appeals with the third-party checkers.
Who checks the checkers?
Anim van Wyk who heads up Africa Check says it’s also important not to think of Africa Check as the implied arbiters of truth in lieu of Facebook. “The facts speak for themselves,” she says. “All decisions we make are based on data”.
It’s that guiding principle that’s made Africa Check one of the most trusted sources for verified news in South Africa, so it’s not surprising Facebook’s chosen it for fact-checking. Perhaps the social network hopes some of the goodwill Africa Check enjoys will rub off on it, after the rough time its had of late with scandals like the Cambridge Analytica debacle, and more recently, last week’s enormous security breach.
Pressed on how Facebook hopes to limit fake content without shaping public discourse unduly or introducing partisan bias to the stories on its platform, Brown says “It’s a tightrope we have to walk a lot. The more we can expand programmes like these, the more we can reduce harm from our platform. The more feedback we can get from users, publishers and the media the better we can become at this.”
Don’t expect overnight changes
As with any new initiative, Facebook says it’s going to take some time before end-users in South Africa and Kenya start seeing tangible results from the programme, but don’t be surprised if the next time your tinfoil-hat-wearing uncle shares a post about the latest plans for intergalactic domination from the ruling class of space lizards with you, it comes with a pop-up notification suggesting its legitimacy is questionable.
Facebook’s efforts to downplay its role in shaping the content its billions of users consume is problematic, but it certainly deserves some credit for (albeit belatedly) acknowledging its obligation to pay closer attention to what not only appears on its platform, but gets to thrive on it. This is doubtless only the start for combatting fake news in South Africa, and we’ll be watching closely to see how it evolves in the weeks and months to come.