FactCheck.org and Facebook partner to fight fake news

The Boston Tribune reported on Oct. 17, 2016, a little-known fact about the first family: According to congressional budget statements, Marian Robinson, the mother of First Lady Michelle Obama, will receive a lifetime $160,000 pension when President Obama leaves office for “services rendered as full-time/in-home caregiver” for granddaughters Sasha and Malia during Obama’s two terms. Robinson lived in the White House during the Obama administration and qualifies for the pension under the Civil Service Retirement Act.

The article quoted Sally Kellner, a volunteer/activist for the National Taxpayers Union, who stated, “I think it’s ridiculous that taxpayers must pay this woman a lifetime salary for something everyday Americans do for free.”

Unsurprisingly, the article’s comments section was lit up with 339 mostly angry responses.

“OUTRAGEOUS!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!” wrote Debby.

“That pension needs to come from Barry and Michele [sic]. She did NOT care for MY grandchildren … or yours,” wrote ScaryBlackRifle.

“She didn’t provide a service to this country, she provided a service to her son-in-law and daughter – they ought to pay her, NOT ME!” wrote Lyle.

What most of the commenters failed to realize is the entire article is fake. FactCheck.org, a project of the Annenberg Public Policy Center, debunked the story not long after it was published and reported that the name of the website is fake—there is no Boston Tribune—the claims about Robinson’s pension are fake—she was never a federal employee so she is not entitled to a pension—and the National Taxpayers Union activist quoted is a made-up person—there is no one at the agency named Sally Kellner.

The story is just one example of the mounting fake news phenomenon.

Eugene Kiely, director of FactCheck.org, says the website has been fighting fake news since 2007, when it launched its “Ask FactCheck” feature. The site receives hundreds of emails a day from individuals, many of them readers asking if a story they read is true.

“In the beginning, it was mostly chain emails, the kind of stuff that gets passed around from friend to friend and relative to relative,” he says. “But now there’s a lot more. Instead of the chain emails, we’re now getting a lot of the bogus stories that are floating around on the internet and on social media sites.”

FactCheck.org is a member of the International Fact-Checking Network hosted by The Poynter Institute. Following the uproar about fake news after the 2016 presidential election, the organization wrote an open letter to Facebook offering to help the site solve its fake news problem.

Facebook took them up on their offer and launched a pilot program to address hoaxes and fake news. FactCheck.org began reviewing stories at the end of December. Its fact checkers are given access to a Facebook tool that allows them to review a list of news stories posted on the social media website.

FactCheck.org is focusing on stories that contain claims made by or about politicians. If its fact checkers find a fake news story, they mark it as false.

Snopes.com, ABC News, the Associated Press, and Politifact.com are also working with Facebook to weed out fake news. If two or more organizations declare an article as fake, false, or a twisting of facts, Facebook will put a disclaimer on the story stating, “This article has been disputed by FactCheck.org.”

Pervasive fake news articles have included claims that Hillary Clinton won only 57 counties during the presidential election, Obama signed an executive order banning the pledge of allegiance, and Pope Francis endorsed Donald Trump for president.

Kiely says some stories can be easily discredited by their outlandishness or with a simple Google search, while other stories are more cleverly written and can appear true to the uninformed.

“In other cases, people just don’t read it,” he says. “They read the headline, they see a picture, and they move on.”

Lori Robertson, managing editor of FactCheck.org, says the first line of defense against fake news is the people reading the stories.

“I think just taking a moment to stop before you forward something, or ‘like’ something, or post something on your Facebook feed, to stop for a moment and look at what the source is, who wrote this, what’s their support, is this something legitimate, I think that could do wonders to stop the spread of it,” she says.

For tips on how to spot fake news, visit FactCheck.org.

Fake News