Do fact checkers provide Facebook’s muscle to rob us of free speech?

By Paul D. Thacker

Emmanuel Vincent is a hunted man.

On June 24, an officer of the French Ministry of the Interior, acting under the terms of the Hague Convention, summoned him to a police station and served him papers to appear in court for posting false and misleading statements in his role as president of Science Feedback, a Facebook fact checking service. On top of this, the beleaguered nonprofit has weathered multiple critiques for posting politicized, biased opinions that call themselves “fact checks”—including a Wall Street Journal editorial that called out Science Feedback for attacking Johns Hopkins physician-researcher Marty Makary, after he wrote an essay predicting the arrival of COVID-19 herd immunity.

“This is counter-opinion masquerading as fact checking,” the Wall Street Journal wrote, noting that Dr. Makary never made a factual claim; he had made a prediction based on his analysis of available evidence.

If you’re interested in falling down a science rabbit hole, feel free to read what Dr. Makary wrote and how Science Feedback responded. But here’s the thing, you don’t need a PhD in epidemiology to understand that when experts analyze studies and make predictions they might be wrong.

Duh. Predictions are opinions, not facts.

And while there’s nothing wrong with Science Feedback posting a contrary prediction, labeling their own opinion a “fact” just proves they fail at logic.

This inability to grasp the difference between opinion and fact has made Science Feedback the butt of online scorn, but what landed Vincent in a police station and sent him fleeing from justice like a man who stole something is colluding with Facebook and the federal government to deny people their First Amendment rights.

All while pretending to be an “independent fact check.”

We’ll get to the specifics of that in a second. Nonetheless, the charge alone has sent Vincent running from address to address, all over Paris.

Man on the run

Back in August of 2020, Vincent was first served a legal complaint at the address for Science Feedback, at 40 Rue Alexandre Dumas, 75011, Paris, France. He was then served at a second address in Paris, 16, rue Cecile Furtado Heine.

By September 2020, a French legal agent learned that Vincent had registered Science Feedback at a different address in Paris. He then called Mr. Vincent on his cell phone and delivered him the documents at a completely new address. (I think we’re now at four addresses) Vincent confirmed to the legal agent that he had already received the documents at one of the addresses, and then refused to sign a receipt.

The court documents were then translated into French, and sent to various addresses for Vincent and Science Feedback. Vincent was then sent certified translations of other legal proceedings against him, and by July of last year, the French Ministry of Justice attested that Vincent was served the documents under the Hague Convention.

According to a certified translation of the French Ministry documents, Ms. Marie Fonquerne, a judicial police officer, requested that Mr. Vincent appear at a police prefecture where he confirmed that he is president of Science Feedback. Vincent then agreed to accept correspondence at an email for Science Feedback, but then gave this weird explanation for why he could not accept the documents:

[I]t is the company SCIIVERIFY that works in partnership with FACEBOOK and not the association SCIENCE FEEDBACK. SCIVERIFY is a subsidiary of SCIENCE FEEDBACK and is located at 40 Rue Alexandre Dumas 75011 PARIS and it is who must be assigned, — I refuse to accept the act which is not addressed to the right entity.

Vincent’s absurdist game of hide and seek has thus far cost over $17,000—as it required the hiring of French legal agents to personally hand-deliver him documents which he refused to sign, and the pursuit of service under the Hague Convention, in which he was summoned to a police station and once again refused to sign for documents.

Emmanuel Vincent did not respond to multiple requests for comment. What is this man afraid of?

Colluding with the government

In their legal complaint against Facebook, Children’s Health Defense cites an article in Fast Company that reports how Facebook sometimes changes the fact check labels of groups like Science Feedback in response to business pressure. In an awkward statement, climate scientist Andrew Dessler of Climate Feedback backed into Children Health Defense’s argument that the government is restricting free speech that is protected under the First Amendment by forcing companies to censor speech instead.

We need to have a society-wide discussion about how corporations should deal with disinformation, and then the government should require corporations to adopt that policy.

The most important thing about the story, and something that doesn’t seem to bother a lot of people, is that we have outsourced decisions like this to corporations. This is a truly terrible situation to be in.

Dessler didn’t realize he was pulling the curtain back on the government’s game to violate the First Amendment by outsourcing free speech restrictions to Facebook. But that’s exactly what Dessler did, and his argument is the same claim made by Children’s Health Defense.

If the federal government censored people for disagreeing with the National institutes of Health (NIH) or the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), that would obviously violate the First Amendment. Instead, the government outsources this censorship to Facebook. Facebook provides censorship through a network of contract “fact checkers” like Science Feedback which receive some funding and training through Facebook and follow guidelines set up by Facebook for how to identify “false” information.

If you’re wondering what Facebook consider the baseline of scientific truth against which the measure other information as false, just check the websites of federal agencies such as the NIH or the CDC. Deviations from the government is likely to get a Science Feedback “fact check.”

Yes, as laid out in the lawsuit and essentially confirmed by Climate Feedback’s Andrew Dessler, the shell game is that transparent. Thus the need for Science Feedback’s Emmanuel Vincent to hide out in Paris so that he can avoid public accountability before a judicial system that is not (yet) rigged by Facebook.

If you’re still confused if Science Feeback’s work is actually biased, consider who they choose to focus their fact checks on, and who they very carefully avoid. Yes, they play favorites.

Science Feedback has never once called out a media report or Twitter account for using the “conspiracy theory” label to attack the credibility of people questioning if the pandemic started from a lab accident in Wuhan, China. A POLITICO-Harvard poll last summer found that the majority of Americans believe that COVID leaked from a Wuhan lab, but science writers at multiple outlets—Scientific American, New York Times, Science Magazine, Washington Post, and Nature Magazine—have dismissed anyone stating this as a “conspiracy theorist.”

Only the Washington Post has gone back to correct prior stories for misusing the term “conspiracy theory.” Yet, Science Feedback has never “fact checked” a single science outlet for throwing around the “conspiracy theory” label like confetti at a New Year’s Day parade.

Nor has Science Feedback “fact checked” the NIH’s Anthony Fauci for misleading Congress and the American public about money his institute provided for dangerous virus research at the Wuhan Institute of Virology. That fact checking was done here at the DisInformation Chronicle, and by Vanity Fair (“In Major Shift, NIH Admits Funding Risky Virus Research in Wuhan”) and by The Hill (“Fauci LIES On Gain Of Function Research CONFIRMED By NIH, EcoHealth Failed To Report Findings”).

And when it comes to vaccines, Science Feedback provides little scientific feedback when the person spitting out disinformation on Twitter is Fauci favorite Peter Hotez, from the Baylor College of Medicine.

Hotez is NEVER fact checked, despite tweeting obvious examples of blatant falsehoods.

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