Checking in on fact-checking outrage

By Joe Coffey | The Fifth Estate

Remember the first time that thing you were Googling suspiciously popped up in an internet ad just a few minutes later?

What a violation of privacy!

Or remember when you were shopping for that other thing online and immediately started seeing ads for competing manufacturers in your Facebook feed?

What a gross, Orwellian betrayal of trust!

And of course, this one:  Have you ever written about a certain topic in an email and then seen ads related to that topic the next time you were surfing the web on a non-related site?

That’s it! This is unconstitutional!

And wouldn’t you know it, after we threw our hands in the air and declared that we were going to stop using Google, Facebook, Gmail, Amazon, etc. we acquiesced to the ways of the interwebs and just dealt with it. Our outrage faded. We moved on.

Another betrayal?

Facebook and Twitter recently had the gall to let people know they were exposed to misinformation. Facebook let users know when they had tangoed with Russian disinformation. Then they removed the bogus COVID-19 “Plandemic” hoax video and pointed users to reliable health resources. Twitter flagged President Trump’s hoaxy tweet about voting by mail being prone to fraud and added a “get the facts about mail-in ballots” banner below his deceptive bluff.

Oh, the gall!

These apparent infringements of freedom strike at the heart of what this column covers monthly:  the business of journalism, where that business is headed and where that leaves us.

Access to fact-based information is a human right that is vital to civil society and public health. Some, however, would argue that such a service or process or business isn’t necessarily essential, nor anything close to a human right.

News is business

We’re used to thinking of journalistic entities as profit-seeking businesses. That’s why some people think a free market should guide whatever happens to journalism. Journalists report on truths and untruths that some of us don’t want to see, hear or believe. News consumers can feel judged, unfairly portrayed or made to look and feel like idiots when their beliefs, candidates and causes don’t get what they consider to be a fair shake.

Some journalistic-ish entities capitalize on the business play in softening that blow, of course.

Consider that news spinning, sharing and commenting happens on social media sites these days. No newspaper subscription or TV is required. At this point, there’s value in social media platforms choosing to flag or remove content for being sketchy or flat-out wrong. If one can’t stomach the journalism-minded motive in that, one should at least respect the business play in it.

Balance isn’t easy

Imagine being a reporter trying to give a fair shake to “the other side.” If, for example, a news story involves 10,000 people marching for a cause, it’s standard protocol for reporters to get an opposing viewpoint from the one angry person across the street who is protesting the march.

Is it mathematically truthful if a 60-second TV news story on the 10,000-person march includes a 20-second sound bite from that “other side?” Isn’t that an unfair representation of what really happened? But then again, what if the 10,000 demonstrators in this example are flat-earthers and the angry person across the street is a Nobel Prize-winning scientist?

Face the facts

This is where fact-checking and/or judgment comes in… or should. We need journalists to inject perspective, intelligence and civic duty into their reporting. In 2020, some reporters are doing just that, but perhaps their stories aren’t getting shared and amplified to millions via social media platforms. When it comes to public health and faith in our democratic process, isn’t it somebody’s duty – heck, anybody’s duty – to step into that role and flag misinformation when they see it? If friends, family and power users aren’t sticking their necks out to do it, the social media platforms might as well give it a go.

If you ask me, a social media platform is a business, not an essential service, and certainly not a human right. If you don’t like their new role in flagging verifiable Russian propaganda and verifiable untruths, don’t worry. Your outrage will fade. You’ll move on. •

Joe Coffey has 20 years of experience as a journalist, educator and marketer in the Corridor.