Famed Journalist Sues Facebook's Fact Checker for False Statements

Famed Journalist Sues Facebook's Fact Checker for False Statements
(AP Photo/Jeff Chiu, File)
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John Stossel doesn’t want to sue Facebook. Unfortunately, he told his followers last week, the platform has left him with no other choice.

Stossel is suing the social-media giant for defamation after Climate Feedback — one of Facebook’s international “fact-checking partners” — tagged two of the libertarian journalist’s Facebook videos as “missing context” and “partly false,” respectively. He says the labels have suppressed the reach of his posts on Facebook, and, in a court filing, argued that his “professional reputation has been significantly and irreparably damaged” by Climate Feedback.

The controversy stems from two videos Stossel posted about climate change. The first, titled “Are We Doomed?,” was posted in November 2019 and sought to dispel claims of impending climate catastrophe. Facebook deemed it “partly false.” The second, “Government Fueled Fires,” was posted in September 2020 and argued — contra Gavin Newsom — that the spate of wildfires in California had more to do with poor forest management than climate change. Facebook slapped a “missing context” label on Stossel’s video and limited its circulation after its fact-checking partner claimed the video “misrepresents a complex reality.”

Stossel’s attorney argues that Facebook and Climate Feedback defamed the libertarian journalist by falsely attributing statements to him that he never made.

The false attribution allegedly occurred in a Climate Feedback “claim review” that was linked to Stossel’s wildfire video on Facebook. In the review, Climate Feedback lists the offending claim in quotes: “Forest fires are caused by poor management. Not by climate change.”

Stossel never uttered those precise words in the video. While he argued that poor forest management was primarily responsible for the California wildfires, he acknowledged that climate change had “made things worse.”

Stossel reached out to Facebook and pointed out the discrepancy. He was told to appeal to Climate Feedback directly. Ever a reporter, Stossel requested an interview with Nikki Forrester, the editor listed on Stossel’s Climate Feedback review, who didn’t immediately respond.

However, two “reviewers” — scientists assigned by Climate Feedback to assess Stossel’s claims — agreed to speak with Stossel on the record. Both reviewers admitted, remarkably, that they had never viewed Stossel’s video on California wildfires. One reviewer, a climate scientist named Zeke Hausfather, even conceded upon viewing Stossel’s video that he had “clearly discussed” both forest management and climate change as causes of wildfires.

Climate Feedback did not change its ruling. In fact, it doubled down. Once the top brass at Climate Feedback caught wind that its reviewers had spoken to Stossel, both reviewers sent emails to Stossel defending the fact-checker’s “missing context” verdict. Climate Feedback put out a lengthy response to Stossel, addressing several of his arguments — including Stossel’s contention that the fact-checker falsely attributed a quote to him.

“Stossel complains that we should not have rated his post using a claim review of a quote that does not appear in his video. This is a misunderstanding of how fact-checking partners operate on Facebook. Given that many pieces of content posted on Facebook can separately make the same claim, it is not necessary to create a separate claim review article for each post we rate,” the fact-checker argued. “It is, of course, necessary that the claim we reviewed is representative of the claim in each post we rate, which is true in this case.”

Krista L. Baughman, Stossel’s attorney, countered in her brief that the attribution of the statement to Stossel “is provably false.”

“When Stossel challenged Defendants on their false attribution and labels, Defendants’ reviewers explained that the judgment was based on Defendants’ displeasure with the ‘tone’ of Stossel’s speech, with what it allegedly ‘implies,’ and with the ‘broader claims’ it was exploring – not about any false facts it contained,” Baughman wrote.

Baughman went further, claiming that it is not the role of a fact-checker to determine whether an argument has been presented with sufficient context.

“[M]issing context’ is a description that could theoretically be applied to any content – whether five minutes or five hundred minutes in length,” she said. “Defendants use the label to condemn any content that expresses an opinion with which Defendants disagree, under the pretext of a ‘fact-check.’”

Climate Feedback disagreed, noting that adding context to claims like Stossel’s ensures that audiences understand “the scientific credibility of the claims they encounter, including claims about climate’s relationship to wildfire trends.”

In either case, Stossel will continue his defamation lawsuit. Stossel — a staunch libertarian —  acknowledged last week that Facebook has the right to demote his videos.

“It does not have the right,” he said, “to just lie about me.”

John Hirschauer is a staff writer for RealClearFoundation.

John Hirschauer is a reporter for RealClearInvestigations. 


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