yesIssie LapowskyNone
×

Get access to Protocol

I’ve already subscribed

Will be used in accordance with our Privacy Policy

Power

Facebook’s viral misinformation policy gets put to the test with Hunter Biden story

The company has limited the spread of the story, citing a policy to curb viral misinformation, even before it's been fact-checked.

Mark Zuckerberg standing in front of his own face on a screen

For most of its history, Facebook has been comfortable keeping an arm's length between itself and these decisions. Now the company is beginning to, in Mark Zuckerberg's own words, "evolve."

Photo: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

For weeks, Facebook has been touting the precautions it's taking to prevent interference in this year's presidential election, including a new policy designed to stop the spread of viral misinformation, even before it's been flagged as false by fact-checkers.

Now, that policy is being put to the test.

On Wednesday, Facebook announced it was limiting the spread of a controversial story in the New York Post regarding Vice President Joe Biden's son Hunter, instantly prompting cries of censorship from Republicans, including Missouri Sen. Josh Hawley, and questions from content moderation scholars about the company's rationale.

"While I will intentionally not link to the New York Post, I want [to] be clear that this story is eligible to be fact-checked by Facebook's third-party fact checking partners," Facebook spokesperson Andy Stone tweeted. "In the meantime, we are reducing its distribution on our platform."

Later, Stone directed Protocol to the company's recently announced policy on viral misinformation, which states, "In many countries, including in the U.S., if we have signals that a piece of content is false, we temporarily reduce its distribution pending review by a third-party fact-checker." Stone didn't respond to Protocol's question about what signals it's received in this case.

Just last week, Facebook's vice president of integrity, Guy Rosen, called the viral content review system "an additional safety net" on a call with reporters. "This system helps us catch content that our regular flows may not pick up fast enough," Rosen said.

For Facebook, this is precisely the type of story the company has been both preparing for and dreading: A potentially damaging scoop, obtained through questionable means, with obvious ties to Russian interests. The last thing Facebook wants is a repeat of 2016, when its platform became a primary vector in the spread of documents that were hacked by Russian military and then published on the website DCLeaks. So, lately, Facebook's head of cybersecurity policy, Nathaniel Gleicher, has been warning about such "hack and leak" operations to anyone who will listen, urging media outlets to take caution before taking the bait. Last week, Gleicher also warned about a trend called "perception hacking," in which foreign operatives try to feed disinformation to "unwitting news organizations."

So, what is Facebook to do when a story like the Post's comes along, claiming that a mystery laptop that was dropped off at a Delaware computer repair shop and never picked up contains a "smoking gun email," that, if true, suggests Hunter Biden introduced his father to an executive at the Ukrainian energy firm Burisma? It reads like precisely the type of drill that Facebook (and others) have been running to prepare for this election. And so, here is Facebook putting that preparation to use.

Faced with the option of doing nothing, blocking the story from being shared, and reducing its spread, Facebook picked the third door. Twitter, by contrast, picked the second, preventing people from posting the story at all, citing its "hacked materials policy." (Retweets appeared to still go through.) That decision prompted one Post editor to tweet angrily about what he called a "Big Tech information coup" and a "digital civil war."

Facebook's approach is less heavy-handed compared to Twitter's. But these types of decisions are messy nonetheless. Facebook wrote this policy to address a problem of scale — the fact that all the fact-checkers in the world couldn't make their way through all the misinformation and disinformation on a platform of billions. That has meant that misinformation often spreads far and wide, polluting the information ecosystem, before it's fact-checked. One recent example: a viral conspiracy theory video called "Plandemic" exploded on Facebook before being removed days later.

For most of its history, Facebook has been comfortable keeping an arm's length between itself and these decisions, preferring to offload determinations of truth to third parties. But that approach has become increasingly problematic for Facebook, prompting the company to, in Mark Zuckerberg's own words, "evolve" and begin banning previously allowed content like Holocaust denialism and anti-vaccination propaganda. Even then, Facebook has often credited the third-party experts who guided those decisions.

Rarely, if ever, has the company justified these judgment calls with something as fuzzy as whether or not it has "signals" that something might be misinformation. This is one of those calls based not on a steadfast rule, but on a hunch, and a hope that Facebook can create a little bit of friction between potential misinformation and the masses before its fact-checkers get to do their jobs.

The claims of censorship were to be expected. Shortly after Stone tweeted, Sen. Hawley sent Zuckerberg a letter with a series of questions about the decision. "If you have evidence that this news story contains "disinformation" or have otherwise determined that there are inaccuracies with the reporting, will you disclose them to the public so that they can assess your findings?" Hawley asked. "Why did you endeavor to publicly state that such a story was subject to a fact-check? Isn't such a public intervention itself a reflection of Facebook's assessment of a news report's credibility?"

Hawley wrote that the company's intervention suggests "partiality on the part of Facebook."

But not everyone was so critical of this approach. In a lengthy Twitter thread, Renée DiResta, one of the top scholars on the topic of viral misinformation and a technical research manager at Stanford Internet Observatory, wrote that Facebook's decision on the Biden story is "actually a very good use of the policy levers at its disposal."

"There are tradeoffs: if virality is unfettered & nothing is fact-checked, don't be surprised when wild nonsense trends," DiResta wrote. "Provided that this policy is applied in a viewpoint-agnostic way, it seems to be a very solid middle ground for addressing info threats ahead of 2020 and beyond."

It's still unclear what determination Facebook's fact-checkers will make. In the meantime, while conservatives accuse Facebook of censorship, the Hunter Biden story — and Facebook's treatment of it — is getting plenty of exposure on Fox News.

Transforming 2021

The future of retail is hiding in an abandoned mall

The warehouse is moving closer to customers' houses as ecommerce eats the world of retail.

Microfulfillment centers could help retailers compete with the largest ecommerce companies.

Photo: Scott Eisen/Bloomberg via Getty Images

The American mall has been decimated by the rise in ecommerce. But soon, it may also be their savior — sort of, at least.

Long before the pandemic kept people at home in front of their computers, buying everything they needed to see out lockdown online, malls were on the decline and ecommerce was on the rise.

Keep Reading Show less
Mike Murphy

Mike Murphy ( @mcwm) is the director of special projects at Protocol, focusing on the industries being rapidly upended by technology and the companies disrupting incumbents. Previously, Mike was the technology editor at Quartz, where he frequently wrote on robotics, artificial intelligence, and consumer electronics.

Sponsored Content

The future of computing at the edge: an interview with Intel’s Tom Lantzsch

An interview with Tom Lantzsch, SVP and GM, Internet of Things Group at Intel

An interview with Tom Lantzsch

Senior Vice President and General Manager of the Internet of Things Group (IoT) at Intel Corporation

Edge computing had been on the rise in the last 18 months – and accelerated amid the need for new applications to solve challenges created by the Covid-19 pandemic. Tom Lantzsch, Senior Vice President and General Manager of the Internet of Things Group (IoT) at Intel Corp., thinks there are more innovations to come – and wants technology leaders to think equally about data and the algorithms as critical differentiators.

In his role at Intel, Lantzsch leads the worldwide group of solutions architects across IoT market segments, including retail, banking, hospitality, education, industrial, transportation, smart cities and healthcare. And he's seen first-hand how artificial intelligence run at the edge can have a big impact on customers' success.

Protocol sat down with Lantzsch to talk about the challenges faced by companies seeking to move from the cloud to the edge; some of the surprising ways that Intel has found to help customers and the next big breakthrough in this space.

What are the biggest trends you are seeing with edge computing and IoT?

A few years ago, there was a notion that the edge was going to be a simplistic model, where we were going to have everything connected up into the cloud and all the compute was going to happen in the cloud. At Intel, we had a bit of a contrarian view. We thought much of the interesting compute was going to happen closer to where data was created. And we believed, at that time, that camera technology was going to be the driving force – that just the sheer amount of content that was created would be overwhelming to ship to the cloud – so we'd have to do compute at the edge. A few years later – that hypothesis is in action and we're seeing edge compute happen in a big way.

Keep Reading Show less
Saul Hudson
Saul Hudson has a deep knowledge of creating brand voice identity, especially in understanding and targeting messages in cutting-edge technologies. He enjoys commissioning, editing, writing, and business development, in helping companies to build passionate audiences and accelerate their growth. Hudson has reported from more than 30 countries, from war zones to boardrooms to presidential palaces. He has led multinational, multi-lingual teams and managed operations for hundreds of journalists. Hudson is a Managing Partner at Angle42, a strategic communications consultancy.
Power

Google wants to help you get a life

Digital car windows, curved AR glasses, automatic presentations and other patents from Big Tech.

A new patent from Google offers a few suggestions.

Image: USPTO

Another week has come to pass, meaning it's time again for Big Tech patents! You've hopefully been busy reading all the new Manual Series stories that have come out this week and are now looking forward to hearing what comes after what comes next. Google wants to get rid of your double-chin selfie videos and find things for you as you sit bored at home; Apple wants to bring translucent displays to car windows; and Microsoft is exploring how much you can stress out a virtual assistant.

And remember: The big tech companies file all kinds of crazy patents for things, and though most never amount to anything, some end up defining the future.

Keep Reading Show less
Mike Murphy

Mike Murphy ( @mcwm) is the director of special projects at Protocol, focusing on the industries being rapidly upended by technology and the companies disrupting incumbents. Previously, Mike was the technology editor at Quartz, where he frequently wrote on robotics, artificial intelligence, and consumer electronics.

Transforming 2021

Blockchain, QR codes and your phone: the race to build vaccine passports

Digital verification systems could give people the freedom to work and travel. Here's how they could actually happen.

One day, you might not need to carry that physical passport around, either.

Photo: CommonPass

There will come a time, hopefully in the near future, when you'll feel comfortable getting on a plane again. You might even stop at the lounge at the airport, head to the regional office when you land and maybe even see a concert that evening. This seemingly distant reality will depend upon vaccine rollouts continuing on schedule, an open-sourced digital verification system and, amazingly, the blockchain.

Several countries around the world have begun to prepare for what comes after vaccinations. Swaths of the population will be vaccinated before others, but that hasn't stopped industries decimated by the pandemic from pioneering ways to get some people back to work and play. One of the most promising efforts is the idea of a "vaccine passport," which would allow individuals to show proof that they've been vaccinated against COVID-19 in a way that could be verified by businesses to allow them to travel, work or relax in public without a great fear of spreading the virus.

Keep Reading Show less
Mike Murphy

Mike Murphy ( @mcwm) is the director of special projects at Protocol, focusing on the industries being rapidly upended by technology and the companies disrupting incumbents. Previously, Mike was the technology editor at Quartz, where he frequently wrote on robotics, artificial intelligence, and consumer electronics.

Photo: Dustin Chambers/Bloomberg via Getty Images

On this episode of the Source Code podcast: Issie Lapowsky dissects what's happening between Facebook, Google and the Australian government. Then Anna Kramer joins to explain why Atlanta is the next big U.S. tech hub.

For more on the topics in this episode:

Keep Reading Show less
David Pierce

David Pierce ( @pierce) is Protocol's editor at large. Prior to joining Protocol, he was a columnist at The Wall Street Journal, a senior writer with Wired, and deputy editor at The Verge. He owns all the phones.

Latest Stories