Undoing Ghosts.
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Undoing Ghosts.

Fake News, fact-checking and censorship — an interview with Snopes.com’s managing editor Brooke Binkowski

This interview was originally published in German on tagesanzeiger.ch. This version is almost unedited.

Brooke Binkowski is the managing editor of fact-checking site Snopes.com. Snopes.com is working in with Facebook to flag ‘fake news’ that are being reported by users.

Can you give us a little bit of insight in how the fact-checking process for Facebook is going to work?
We don’t really do anything differently other than check off stories that we have already marked false or true against a list of stories that have been flagged by users as possibly hoaxes. It takes an additional two or three seconds, and is fully optional. We do not take any money for this, and will never, because this is, to my mind, a public service.

According to Adam Mosseri, Facebook’s VP of News Feed, your fact-checking will focus on “the worst of the worst”. What does that mean exactly?
I have no idea what “the worst of the worst” means. I, personally, deliberately do not pay attention to a lot of what Facebook is doing, because I do not want it to affect my fact checking or my stories.

What is the amount of time and effort you spend on a single story?
It really depends. Some are easier than others, if they come from known hoax or satire sites for example. Many sides of that nature have a disclaimer buried somewhere on the page, which often saves us legwork because they are admitting that they just went ahead and made it up. We do try to put stuff like that in its proper context, however. When we have the time one of my favorite things to do is answer preposterous questions with very earnest answers. For example, one story that we checked was about Saturn being extremely close to the earth and taking up the entire sky. My idea for this was to contact NASA and have them explain why this would not be possible without causing major earthquakes, tsunamis et cetera.

I guess it’s not always that easy.
Other stories are not so straightforward. I cautioned my writers to not go down a rabbit hole, but also to take time if they need it. So I worked on one story for three weeks, for example. I worked on other things at the same time as well, but it was still a very deep dive. Obviously, we have to strike a balance between putting out enough stories — so we can all still eat — and spending three weeks on one article. But we do try to tackle as much as we can and as deeply as possible.

Quis custodiet ipsos custodes — who watches the watchmen?
We generally depend on our own fact-checking and the public watching us. We do not mind any other people fact-checking our fact-checking — we welcome it. I do not understand why more people do not do that, because there are so many accusations that get flown at us about where our money is coming from, for example. I would love people to look into where our money is coming from because they’ll find that it comes from exactly where we say it does.

Many fact-checkers — including Snopes — are often criticised for being biased. What is you view on these allegations?
We do get a ton of accusations that we are left wing. However lately, we have been getting a lot of accusations that we are right wing, which makes us all laugh because nobody ever seems to be happy with us.

What happens if an influential media company gets caught in spreading fake news? Are you able to treat all sources equally?
Yes, we fact check all publications equally. I don’t care if it’s my favorite bestie reporter buddy. If they put out misinformation then they put out misinformation. The only reason we end up missing stories is because we have such a small staff, relative to major media org, and there is so much misinformation out there.

What is the correct way of dealing with fake news?
I do not believe that the fight against fake news should involve censorship. This is a dangerous path that I see us going down. You can already see that in the way that it is been co-opted. While I do think it is important to call out misinformation, it is more important, in my opinion, to flood out poor information with well resourced and vetted and strong journalism. I don’t mean partisan journalism. I mean strong journalism. It is an essential component of a healthy, functioning democracy. It doesn’t matter if you don’t like the news or disagree with. Reality is immovable and needs to be known. That is the only thing that is going to make “fake news” less of a problem.

So you think we’re on our way to start censoring or be censored?
I do think that cracking down on a fake news or propaganda is important, but I think it’s being done wrong way. The reason I say we are going down the path of censorship is because this whole idea that fake news needs to be eliminated is just one small step away from someone deciding what you say is fake, and going ahead and eliminating your news organization. We have already seen rumblings of that in the United States.

The far-right has already co-opted the term “fake news” for their sake. Is this dangerous?
I saw that coming. Didn’t everybody? I would not be surprised if pressure became stronger and entire news organizations start getting shut down because the term fake news has been misappropriated. I also don’t want to see the left doing this — it’s repressive and counterproductive. I don’t want to see those callouts about fake news and propaganda turn into something far more sinister, no pun intended.

Meaning?
To put it another way: who decides what is fake news? Who decides what is satire? Who decides what is a harmless hoax? Who decides what is completely true and what is completely false? What if the story is a little bit of truth mixed in with a whole lot of lying? It’s a slippery slope. Very, very, very slippery. That is why I strongly and truly believe that the only thing we can do is flood it out: flat out fake news with real stories. Textured, nuanced, in-depth, interesting, important. We have to show our sources, we have to show our work. that’s on us. I’ve always believed this by the way, it’s just more important now.

So you will not be able to blacklist any sites for Facebook?
No, and I like it that way. I would not be comfortable doing that at all. We just fact-check it and that’s it.

What do you think about the term ‘fake news’?
I personally think the term fake news is misleading. Let’s call it what it is: propaganda. I do not understand why so many news organizations are shying away from the term propaganda, when that clearly is what it is.

Do you think fake news — propaganda — had any effect on the outcome of the elections?
Yes. That is what propaganda supposed to do, and that is what it always does. I think what happened this time around is that a completely neutered journalism industry was unable to counter the propaganda the way it has in previous years. In many places, the news became propagandized. It still is. I do not know whether I think that this is the novelty that it’s being treated as however. Any student of, for example, Latin American history knows that foreign forces have been utilizing propaganda to alter domestic elections for centuries. This should be a teachable moment for people who don’t understand why the news media exists to begin with.

Memes have been proven to be a very effective vehicle of spreading unfactual information.
Memes are a good way of spreading propaganda, but propaganda will basically spread itself. Mark Twain said a lie will get halfway across the world while the truth is still putting on its shoes. Memes are just a new way to do a very old thing. The only antidote is to keep doing what you’re doing keep doing what we are doing and have integrity doing it and not sacrifice that for anybody or anything. I know I sound like an ideologue, but I’ve lived my whole life in the pursuit of absolute truth.

Donald Trump — the president of the U.S. himself — is accusing the New York Times of being fake news. His advisor Kellyanne Conway has been spreading the term ‘alternative facts’. Is this cause for concern?
I would love for us to be obsolete, or rather, I would love for our mission to be atomized. There will always be a place for a fact checkers in society. I think that we have an important role, sure, but this should have been part of newsrooms this entire time. We should not be separate and treated as though we are something new. We are not new. What is new in my experience is that now fact checking is treated as separate from journalism. I find it just as bemusing as when data journalism was treated as something separate from actual journalism. I do love that people go to us. I love that we have built up a lot of trust and integrity over the years. It has been hard won. But I do not think that we should be part of a handful of organizations in the media landscape doing this work. There is plenty of room for many, many more. So please, join us! We can be the Credible Hulk together. Sorry, I stole that pun, but I’m very fond of it.

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Robin Adrien Schwarz

Robin Adrien Schwarz

I like philosophy, literature, journalism and digital stuff. Oh, and music.