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Wednesday, September 12, 2018

Contra Ben Thompson on Facebook and The Weekly Standard

Last year, Facebook announced a partnership with The Weekly Standard to perform fact checking. Many progressives cried foul, and this week, they censored ThinkProgress's Ian Millhiser's article headlined “Brett Kavanaugh said he would kill Roe v. Wade last week and almost no one noticed.”

The objection, as Millhiser explains, was that Kavanaugh didn't say specific words that unequivocally, syntactically, make clear that he would kill Roe v. Wade. Instead, he said something which, if you listen to his statements about law and Supreme Court decisions, only logically means he would reverse Roe v. Wade.

Casey Newton in The Interface was critical of Millhiser's take, as Thompson explains:

As Newton goes on to note, Millhiser could have used a word like “indicate” or “hints” instead of “said”, but that, of course, is less inflammatory and would surely mean fewer clicks. Ultimately, Newton concludes:

> If an article is basically factually correct, but has a headline that is basically factually wrong, fact-checkers ought to take action — or what else are they for? Some people think the “false label” ought to be reserved only for moonbat headlines about the Pope being a lizard person, but it’s hard for me to see how that meaningfully improves our news ecosystem.

Oh, and by the way, read again the headline of the piece I started with: does the author think it is actually true that Facebook’s idea of fact-checking is censoring ThinkProgress because a conservative site told them to? Or is the thirst for clicks worth choosing hyperbole over truth, and the outrage less about the pursuit of objective truth and more about the insistence that the powers that be enforce one’s own political goals?

I find Thompson's points cogent, but I disagree.

I think there has to be a distinction between unfounded stories and interpretive analysis grounded in fact. Facebook and the Weekly Standard could make the same case against a headline like "Donald Trump Jr. Released Clear Evidence of Collusion Yesterday" or "Trump's Comments Supporting White Supremacists are Dangerous for America".

And though Stratechery is much more free from overheated headlines than nearly any newspaper or news website I've read, he uses hyperbole frequently himself. In fact, I'd say it's a huge part of his appeal. When he says (I'm making this up) "Evan Spiegel is telegraphing to the world that he's out of ideas" or whatever, the whole point is that he's not literally doing that, but when you understand things as well as Thompson is about to help you do, you can see how Spiegel or whoever is *effectively* doing that.

Yes, there is grey area; I'd agree with analysis that, say, refused to allow misleading hyperbole like "The KKK has been given a office in the West Wing". But this ThinkProgress analysis is nowhere near that line, and I think The Weekly Standard--a particularly hyperbolic and thinly edited publication that I've unfortunately made myself read quite a bit--can't be trusted to police it.

More broadly, I just don't buy the complaint that it's hard to make good calls about what is and isn't obscenely defrauding its readers, and I wish that Thompsons imagination didn't shrink from the task of solving that problem.

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