News verification, to point out those that constitute misinformation, is one of the priorities for social networks and especially for Facebook, which has built an alliance with journalistic organizations, such as the Associated Press (AP), to identify hoaxes and reduce their reach.
However, the lack of transparency regarding the verification process, as well as the non-existence of appeal channels available to ordinary users, together with the worrying lack of common sense on the part of the supposed verifiers, are turning this process into an exercise increasingly closer to Soviet censorship.
A few weeks ago we talked about a meme declared as fake. Well, now they are taking an even worse step towards the imposition of an official truth, directed by none other than the Government.
Soviet-style news verification
Here is a very clear example of this phenomenon. Last August 21, Mexican Senator Julen Rementería (PAN-Veracruz) posted the following tweet: “With the ‘excuse’ of Hurricane Grace, the Mexican Government removed electricity and telephone signal since yesterday in the municipalities of the northern part of the state of Veracruz. They don’t want images of the disaster to be on the Internet because they vanished FONDEN.”
The screenshot of said tweet quickly spread through social networks, shared mainly by users who oppose Andrés Manuel López Obrador’s (AMLO) regime, until a couple of days later, Facebook classified it as misinformation.
The reason? A “verification” by the Associated Press that disproves the tweet, under the title: “Mexico did not block internet and electricity to censor images of disaster.”
The problem is that the alleged verification was based solely on statements by public officials, with no outside source to back up the denial by a government that would obviously deny having intentionally cut off electricity and telephone services to thousands of citizens in the midst of a disaster.
Without blushing one bit, the AP points out that: “A spokesman for the Government of Veracruz told The Associated Press that what is being claimed it is not true” and later they add, quoting the same official, that: “Ivan Luna, coordinator of Social Communication of the Government of Veracruz, told AP in a WhatsApp message that it is not true that the services have been suspended by the Government.”
Yes, you read that right. The assiduous verification work consisted of: “Ivan Luna, coordinator of Social Communication of the Government of Veracruz, told AP in a WhatsApp message that it is not true.”
The rest of the note contains data not necessarily related and more statements from the (now federal) Government. In short, AP did not conduct any real investigation to “verify” that the news in question was fake, they simply asked an official and from there they wrote a note that would seem to come out of some area of social communication of the Government. Propaganda, then.
In a few words: based on evidently biased information, issued by officials of the accused Government itself, the Associated Press gave as false the statement of a senator of the Republic to whom, according to what was observed in the AP verification, they did not even bother to contact him to ask him what was the evidence that supported his statement.
The consequences of censorship
You might think “after all, it’s simply saying that a tweet is fake, how serious could it be?”
The answer is: very serious. Why?
Because if you share information that Facebook considers to be fake, the social network drastically restricts the reach of your posts, through an absolutely opaque sanctioning process. The victim of that punishment cannot know how long it will last and how much it will affect the reach of their posts, and even less will they have access to an appeal to prove their innocence.
Another thing. The effects of these sanctions go far beyond high school classmates not seeing the photos uploaded of a breakfast at the IHOP. In the case of opinion leaders or media outlets, the collapse of their network reach because of a punishment for misinformation can represent incalculable losses in terms of less interaction with content, lower revenue to website links and lower monetization.
This is not just a problem for the press or influencers, but for all platform users. Why?
Because if the standard of what is true or false in the eyes of Facebook is up to government officials, opposing voices will inevitably be silenced, as both the media and individual influencers will have a clear incentive to give the official version of any event as “good,” even if it is not true.
Truth is not always easily “verifiable”
That’s key. The AP has declared as fake many other “news,” such as the one that singer Vicente Fernandez died in a plane crash, or that Bill Gates was arrested by a group of Marines, and that’s fine, because those stories are obviously fake and easily verifiable. However, fact-checkers should not jump with the same arrogance to “disprove” more complex news.
For example, in the case of the tweet posted by Senator Rementería, there is no compelling evidence that the Mexican government has indeed acted deliberately to limit the access of Veracruz citizens to electricity, but neither is there (at least in AP’s verification) any convincing evidence of the falsity of that accusation.
This happens very often in politics: accusations, strategies, under-the-table agreements, clandestine actions (Cantinflas would say: “that’s why they are clandestine, as they say: so that it is not known”) are part of the game and make it almost impossible to affirm with full certainty whether they are true or false.
In short, to find out whether Bill Gates was arrested or not, it is enough to contact his office or that of the Marines. But, to confirm whether the Mexican government cut off telephone and electricity service to thousands of people, a call to the government itself is not enough. To do so is grossly irresponsible.
Thus, when AP and Facebook label political claims as fake, without even a real prior investigation of contrasting sources, both institutions become mere unofficial agents of the group in the government, and the resulting censorship becomes (at least a little) Soviet.