Fact-Checked! How Big Tech Pretends to Care About Misinformation (Part 2)

Don’t forget to check out Part 1!

$3 billion dollars.

That’s how much the top four American philanthropists — Jeff Bezos, Michael Bloomberg, Bill Gates, and Mark Zuckerberg — donated in 2019. Silicon Valley figures have quickly become the new face of philanthropy, hovering among the top donors since around 2010.

Where did they donate? One area of interest to the likes of FaceBook and Google is fact-checking organizations, companies fighting against misinformation stemming, ironically, from their own platforms amidst widespread public criticism. But, why do FaceBook and Google donate to fact-checkers? And is philanthropy as helpful as it sounds?

So, how much?

FaceBook donated $323,745 to the organization FactCheck.org in 2020. Google donated $100,000. In 2019, FaceBook awarded Full Fact £796,715 total through two different initiatives. Google gave £193,475.

Look back to 2016, and you’ll see similar figures. It’s not just these two organizations — FaceBook and Google have donated millions to multiple fact-checking organizations through projects like the Google AI Impact Challenge and the FaceBook Journalism Project.

Techno-philanthropy sounds pretty great so far, right? It’s true that these platforms have become vital backers for many organizations invested in a democratic future, but unintended consequences have started cropping up.

Not quite yet…how does philanthropy affect nonprofits?

First, fact-checking organizations are turning increasingly for-profit. This becomes a problem when organizations devoted to being non-partisan and unbiased start having cash incentives from potentially partisan donors.

In fact, the State of Fact-Checking 2020 survey on 80 organizations found that 53% of respondents are for-profit, 24% higher than two years ago.

Second, and not too surprisingly, the main source of income for 43% of the organizations came from FaceBook’s Third Party Fact-Checking program, which began just after the 2016 presidential election. What’s more concerning, though, is that academic institutions housing fact-checking programs dropped from 4% last year to 1.3%.

Mark Stencel, the co-director of Duke’s Reporters’ Lab, credits this sharp change to social media platforms’ sudden, large donations and more fact-checkers working in traditional media outlets since 2016. So, this pivot lines up pretty well with public awareness of misinformation. It’s simple: tech companies made a mistake, and now they’re fixing it. Well, not quite.

Misinformation needs to be attacked from multiple directions, but so far tech companies are disproportionately focusing their efforts on fact-checks after they enter circulation. Rather than grappling with the sources, fact-checking is a convenient and easy-to-explain solution to widespread anxiety about misinformation.

One of these sources is coordinated inauthentic behavior (CIB). CIB has been an ambiguous term since FaceBook created the term two years ago. Generally it describes how a network of people (or pages or both) make a planned effort to mislead others online about the network’s purpose, location, or identity.

A QAnon led botnet on Twitter astroturfs #BLM with false posts for their political agenda. In this example, the CIB is the botnet and the planned activities to create false content; misinformation is the false articles. CIB has the potential to be just as worrisome as misinformation, but social media platforms define it differently, treat it differently, and have not made many efforts to concretely deal with it, unlike fact-checking.

Why FaceBook’s fact-checking will never work

With nine third-party partners, it seems like FaceBook should be able to cover a significant portion of its misinformation. But, in January 2020, the (then) seven partners only made 302 fact-checks from the millions of pieces of content uploaded daily.

To put things in greater perspective, FaceBook does not donate as much money as it appears. The platform invests a few million dollars a year in fact-checking organization; however, FaceBook has a total revenue of 71 billion dollars. Crunch the numbers and that comes out to a maximum of .004% from the total revenue.

One advantage of fact-checking is that it is a clear way for Big Tech to deal with a huge social media criticism without airing more serious misinformation causes to the public. Of course, it also provides some good PR.

It’s not all negative, though. Fact-checking philanthropy does some good: fact-checking efforts have increased and have effectively dealt with misinformation. But, misinformation is not always about individual pieces of false content and includes how groups can use platform design to their own advantage.

Currently techno-philanthropy provides some breathing room for tech companies. This shield should not be used to cover up other concerns like bias in for-profit orgs and CIB.

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All opinions and views expressed are those of the author, and do not necessarily reflect the position of humanID.

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Miriam Attal

University of Michigan 2020 | Communications & Media Studies | Research and Marketing at humanID.