Facebook's newest fact-checking partner is connected to an enterprise that was founded by a conservative Fox News host and that routinely promotes climate doubt.
The social media giant is partnering with CheckYourFact.com to provide third-party oversight of news on its platform, Facebook announced last week. Check Your Fact is an affiliate of The Daily Caller, the right-leaning news outlet co-founded by Fox News host Tucker Carlson.
Climate scientists and advocates are worried that the new partnership means climate articles will be downplayed on Facebook.
The climate stories published by The Daily Caller create a false impression of the level of certainty about human-caused global warming within the climate science field, said Susan Joy Hassol, director of the science outreach nonprofit group Climate Communication.
In particular, The Daily Caller has mastered a form of partial truth-telling that isn't technically wrong but doesn't give the full picture, either, she said.
"You can really mislead people without outright lying, and in a way that's more dangerous," she said. "You can't prove it false; you can't say what they've said is inaccurate, that it's a lie; you can't say any of that. Then somebody would have to say it's true — well, it's not true because it's not the whole truth."
Carlson co-founded The Daily Caller with Neil Patel, former chief policy adviser to Vice President Dick Cheney. Many of its stories are produced by the staff of the Daily Caller News Foundation, which receives funding from the Charles Koch Foundation, as well as a number of other conservative foundations that fund groups that attack climate science.
Check Your Fact is wholly owned by The Daily Caller, and its work is routinely promoted by the news organization. While it is editorially independent and has its own staff, Check Your Fact receives funding from both The Daily Caller, as well as the Daily Caller News Foundation, according to the company.
Joel Kaplan, a vice president at Facebook and a former White House aide to President George W. Bush, pushed for the company to partner with The Daily Caller for about a year, The Wall Street Journal reported last year. Kaplan, who is an ally of Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh, has sought changes at Facebook amid complaints by some conservatives that the company is biased against them.
Check Your Fact is one of just six organizations that Facebook currently lists as fact-checkers in the United States. The others include Pulitzer Prize winners such as the Associated Press and PolitiFact. All of the fact-checkers have passed an assessment test implemented by the Poynter Institute's International Fact-Checking Network.
Facebook set up its fact-checking operation as a response to extensive criticism that the platform is often used to spread misinformation. Russia exploited Facebook in the 2016 election to spread divisions and false information to the public. The platform is still home to a number of climate denial groups that use it to spread falsehoods about climate science.
The social media company gives its fact-checkers tremendous power to reduce the number of viewers who can see news in their feeds.
"If a fact-checker rates content as false, it will appear lower in News Feed," the Facebook fact-checking page states. "This significantly reduces the number of people who see it."
Facebook did not respond to requests for comment on how exactly the new partnership with Check Your Fact will work.
David Sivak, editor at Check Your Fact, said the organization does not have an editorial position on global warming.
"We don't have an editorial stance on climate change, or any other topic for that matter," he wrote in response to questions. "We're fact checkers, and we take our credibility seriously. Look through any of the articles Check Your Fact has published over the last two years, and you'll quickly see that. We're fair and always give the reader a complete picture."
Check Your Fact recently fact-checked President Trump's incorrect statement that wind turbines cause cancer.
While the website labeled the claim as false — and quoted cancer experts saying as much — it also quoted National Wind Watch, an anti-wind group that organizes and fights against wind turbines throughout the country. A spokesman for that group claimed the president was correct; he said turbines cause a lack of sleep and stress, which can lead to cancer.
In March, Check Your Fact gave credence to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell's claims that the Green New Deal would cost more than every dollar the federal government has spent in its history. The Kentucky Republican and Check Your Fact relied on a single study, produced by a conservative think tank, the American Action Forum.
But the author of that study has acknowledged that its calculation of a $93 trillion price tag is essentially a guess, since the Green New Deal is currently a vague resolution. E&E News has reported on how the American Action Forum is connected to a web of conservative groups that fund political attacks through undisclosed donors and that have been funded by fossil fuel lobbying interests opposed to environmental regulations (Climatewire, April 1).
The Daily Caller, for its part, has a long history of giving its readers the impression that climate science is largely a political fight, rather than a rigorous scientific inquiry. It regularly attacks mainstream news outlets for their reporting on climate science, instead amplifying conservative think tanks and skeptical Republicans and the small number of skeptical climate scientists with legitimate academic credentials. Its climate reporting focuses on doubt and highlights data that suggests climate concerns from the world's leading science agencies and organizations are incorrect.
Just this week, the news organization published a piece that called into doubt the accuracy of climate models. The piece claimed that "many climate scientists are skeptical of the extreme warming predicted by next-generation climate models." The article cited a few skeptical researchers but did not sample the far greater range of researchers who have shown that climate predictions from years past have held up to actual observations. Scientists are largely confident in climate models, even as they seek to improve their forecasting of future conditions.
In fact, the American Meteorology Society released a statement on climate change that included praise for the accuracy of climate models.
"Climate models successfully replicate the global warming of the twentieth century, and they agree that further warming and other global and regional changes can be expected this century," the statement read.
Last fall, when the Trump administration released the National Climate Assessment, The Daily Caller trumpeted a series of headlines that framed the report as a controversial, political document — rather than one crafted over years through the Obama and Trump administrations and that was reliant on dozens of peer-reviewed studies. The National Climate Assessment was produced by 300 scientists across 13 federal agencies and was reviewed by the National Academies of Science, Engineering, and Medicine.
The Daily Caller's reporting on the national assessment focused on climate skeptics who have been critical of the larger field of climate science for years.
In one of its first stories on the report, the news organization relied on University of Colorado scientist Roger Pielke Jr., who believes humans are contributing to climate change but questions links between warming and extreme weather events.
"'EMBARRASSING': CLIMATE EXPERT EXPLAINS WHAT'S WRONG WITH THE WHITE HOUSE'S NEW CLIMATE REPORT," The Daily Caller stated.
After the report was released, President Trump told reporters from Axios, while making an ocean wave motion with his hand, that climate goes up and down.
"Is there climate change? Yeah. Will it go back like this, I mean, will it change back? Probably," Trump said.
News outlets around the world corrected Trump's misstatement. The Daily Caller found a different angle: "REPORTERS PRESS TRUMP ABOUT GLOBAL WARMING, HE ANSWERS WITH FACTS."
'Kernel of doubt'
One frequent target of The Daily Caller's reporting is Penn State University climate scientist Michael Mann. He said he was disturbed to hear that Facebook is giving the outlet a much broader platform on which to attack climate science.
"It is truly disturbing to hear that Facebook, already known to be a dubious organization with an ethically challenged CEO, is partnering with 'Daily Caller,' which is essentially a climate change-denying Koch Brothers front group masquerading as a media outlet," he said. "If they fail to cease and desist in outsourcing their 'fact-checking' to this bad faith, agenda-driven outlet, they will face serious repercussions."
Hassol, the climate communications expert, said allowing The Daily Caller network and Check Your Fact to have oversight of news on a platform notorious for spreading false information is "a nightmare."
She worried that the platform could play a major role in highlighting climate uncertainty.
"All they have to do is introduce a kernel of doubt. That's been the playbook," she said. "They don't have to prove anything. All they have to do is create doubt and leave people questioning."