Snopes, the internet’s favorite fact-checking site, is having a good week. It scored a win when Facebook said it removed over 600 profiles, as well as a number of pages and groups associated with these profiles, following some extensive reporting by Snopes. A report by Snopes claims that a network of inauthentic Facebook profiles were artificially boosting engagement to a pro-President Donald Trump media outlet.
Facebook did not respond to a request for comment as to what its future strategy would be to continue fighting the ongoing problem of inauthentic engagement and fake user profiles, but the company has previously announced a rash of efforts to fight fake news, including partnering with local fact-checking organizations all over the world to monitor the content on its platform. At the same time, though, it said it will be “demoting,” but not removing, content that has been rated as untrustworthy, and announced the decision not to fact-check political ads.
Snopes, from the 2016 election up until the beginning of this year, was one of those Facebook fact-checking partners in the U.S. The partnership ended when Snopes’ vice president of operations, Vinny Green, realized that Snopes was becoming far too reliant on Facebook’s money to survive. Snopes has a yearly operating budget of $3 million, Green told Digital Trends. He added that he saw the partnership as ultimately contradictory to Snopes’ mission, and, at the end of the day, a cynical move on Facebook’s part to look like it was doing something to check facts.
“There was no engagement from Mark Zuckerberg,” Green said of the partnership with Facebook. “I don’t think he’s committed to this. I don’t think that he wants to pursue these projects, and we weren’t getting a forum with the only person who could really make change. The disengagement from the C-suite [top company officials] was obvious.”
The cost of staying independent
Snopes has now launched an independent crowdfunding campaign to support its fact-checking work moving into 2020. The fundraising doesn’t have a final dollar amount in mind; as of this writing, Green said it’s raised around $75,000.
Snopes’ launch of this crowdfunding campaign is an attempt to fend off what Green called “the PR machine” that steps in when there’s a lack of funding for fact-checking sites.
“Snopes being small and for-profit allows us to burn the bridges we should never cross anyway,” he said. “It’s untenable to not be looking at these organizations [big tech companies] in an adversarial way. They have perverted the intentions of the incentive economy, and now credible and reliable content is not of value.”
Fact-checking organizations, which are often one- or two-person operations, will end up in these partnerships with larger tech companies because that’s where the money is, Green said. They are offered some amount of money that looks huge to them but that’s nothing to a massive tech company and, as a result of this relationship, the fact-checkers can’t hold the powerful accountable. “These little pennies get passed around,” Green said, “and then suddenly Zuckerberg gets to go on Capitol Hill and gets called out on why this fact-checking program’s not effective.”
Alex Kasprak, one of the authors of the Snopes piece on these inauthentic networks on Facebook, said the biggest challenge facing fact-checking in 2020 will be getting tech giants to acknowledge the scale of the problem.
“They don’t have the motivation to acknowledge it,” Kasprak told Digital Trends. “There’s also an increasing number of people who are figuring out how to game social media. It’s an arms race.”
Kasprak said he never expected Facebook to take any action on these problems that he had reported on, but this also isn’t the end of the problem. In the three months he and his co-author Jordan Liles were reporting out their story, they watched the techniques of these networks evolve to boost engagement and evade detection. “We’re trying to keep on top of the ways people are pushing misinformation, as well as hold tech companies to account,” he said.