In April 2019, Facebook announced it was adding The Daily Caller, the right-wing site founded by Fox News host Tucker Carlson, to its fact-checking program. The move was made in response to conservatives who complained that Facebook's existing partners, outlets like the Associated Press and Politifact, had a liberal bias. Joel Kaplan, the Republican operative who heads Facebook's DC office, pushed for The Daily Caller internally.
Now The Daily Caller is using its role as a Facebook fact-checker to boost Trump and discredit a mainstream media outlet, Politico. At issue is an article published by Politico on February 28: "Trump rallies his base to treat coronavirus as a ‘hoax.’" This is the opening paragraph of Politico's piece, which summarized a Trump rally in South Carolina:
President Donald Trump on Friday night tried to cast the global outbreak of the coronavirus as a liberal conspiracy intended to undermine his first term, lumping it alongside impeachment and the Mueller investigation.
The Daily Caller, through its subsidiary, Check Your Fact, ruled that Politico's article was "false." Here is the explanation:
Trump referred to the alleged “politicizing” of the coronavirus by Democrats as “their new hoax.” He did not refer to the coronavirus itself as a hoax. Throughout the speech, Trump reiterates his administration is taking the threat of the coronavirus seriously.
So now, if you try to post a link to the Politico article on Facebook, you are warned that the Politico article contains "false information."
Users who click through to "See Why" are provided with this explanation:
So is Politico's article factually inaccurate? Here is what Trump said:
Now the Democrats are politicizing the coronavirus. You know that, right? Coronavirus. They're politicizing it. We did one of the great jobs, you say, "How's President Trump doing?", "Oh, nothing, nothing."...One of my people came up to me and said, "Mr. President, they tried to beat you on Russia, Russia, Russia." That didn't work out too well. They couldn't do it. They tried the impeachment hoax. That was on a perfect conversation. They tried anything, they tried it over and over, they've been doing it since she got in. It's all turning, they lost. It's all turning, think of it, think of it. And this is their new hoax. But you know we did something that's been pretty amazing. We have 15 people in this massive country and because of the fact that we went early, we went early, we could have had a lot more than that. We're doing great. Our country is doing so great. We are so unified.
The Daily Caller asserts the Politico article is false because Trump only "described Democratic complaints about his handling of the virus threat as 'their new hoax.'" But that is not what Trump said. Trump said, "this is their new hoax."
The Daily Caller resolves the ambiguity by claiming that "throughout the speech," Trump "reiterates his administration is taking the threat of the coronavirus seriously." That is not true. Throughout the speech, Trump downplays the risk of coronavirus to Americans. At one point, he emphasizes that the risk to Americans is low and accuses the press of being in "hysteria mode":
So a number that nobody heard of that I heard of recently, and I was shocked to hear, 35,000 people on average die each year from the flu. Did anyone know that? Thirty-five thousand, that's a lot of people. It could go to a hundred thousand. It could be 20,000. They say usually a minimum of 27, goes up to 100,000 people a year die, and so far we have lost nobody to coronavirus in the United States. Nobody. And it doesn't mean we won't and we are totally prepared. It doesn't mean we won't. But think of it, you hear 35 and 40,000 people and we've lost nobody. You wonder if the press is in hysteria mode.
As of Monday, six Americans have died from the coronavirus.
During another part of the speech, Trump does say we have to treat coronavirus "very, very seriously." He's not shy about delivering conflicting messages.
But it's impossible to disentangle Trump's critique of Democrats with his minimization of the threat posed by the coronavirus itself. The Daily Caller, however, has leveraged its privileged position to resolve the ambiguity in a way that benefits Trump. In the process, it is damaging the journalistic reputation of Politico and greatly reduced the distribution of this article on Facebook.
Politico, which has not made any corrections to the article, did not respond to a request for comment. Geoffrey Ingersoll, the Editor-in-Chief of The Daily Caller, told Popular Information that the fact check was "correct."
As the election grows nearer, there is an even greater risk that The Daily Caller will abuse the power given to it by Facebook to shape the national narrative.
Why does Facebook let The Daily Caller pass judgment on Politico?
Facebook has decided to put The Daily Caller in a position to make judgments about the accuracy of Politico articles. Why?
The Daily Caller has proven itself to be unreliable by repeatedly failing fact checks from other fact-checkers, including other Facebook partners. A few examples:
The Daily Caller reported that "Former President Bill Clinton and his Clinton Health Access Initiative (CHAI) distributed ‘watered-down’ HIV/AIDS drugs to patients in sub-Saharan Africa." Politifact rated that claim FALSE.
The Daily Caller reported that George Soros had "deep links" to a company supplying voting machines in the 2016 election, putting him in a position to rig the outcome. Snopes rated that claim FALSE.
The Daily Caller reported that a California State Senate Committee banned the use of "he" or "she" during hearings. Snopes rated that claim FALSE.
In other instances, The Daily Caller has published false information and then scrubbing it without explanation.
In addition to publishing false information, The Daily Caller also published columns by Jason Kessler, a prominent white supremacist who helped organize the Charlottesville march.
Facebook has now empowered The Daily Caller to pass judgment on other journalism outlets.
What does The Daily Caller fact check?
In its application to the International Fact-Checking Institute, The Daily Caller insists it "pursues a non-partisan mission of fact-checking public figures on both sides of the political spectrum." Many of its fact-checks that scrutinize conservatives, however, are focused on irrelevant claims that are packaged as clickbait. These articles likely do more to spread misinformation than to stop it.
To its credit, The Daily Caller occasionally produces meaningful fact checks of misinformation targeted at progressives, like this one about Bernie Sanders.
Other fact checks cover irrelevant topics.
(If you are curious, no, Mike Tyson did not do this.)
Unlike most other fact-checkers, The Daily Caller does not check statements by Donald Trump or other politicians. The Washington Post, for example, identified "16,241 false or misleading claims in his first three years." Facebook's program does not include fact-checking of political figures, but most reputable fact-checkers do it anyway. Check Your Fact, however, appears to exist only to function as part of the Facebook program.
Who funds The Daily Caller's fact check site?
According to its 2019 application for accreditation by the International Fact-Checking Institute, Check Your Fact spends about $200,000 per year on its work.
Check Your Fact disclosed that about half of its funding comes from "a $100,000 grant from the Searle Freedom Trust." The Searle Freedom Trust is a major funder of organizations that push climate disinformation and other right-wing causes. It is a funder, for example, of the C02 coalition, a group claims increased carbon dioxide emissions will benefit the earth.
Asked why the Searle Freedom Trust would support a purportedly independent fact-checking operation, Ingersoll said that he has "zero visibility" into the funding of the Daily Caller News Foundation, which received the grant.
The far-right celebrates
Donald Trump Jr., who claimed that Democrats want millions of people to die from the coronavirus, praised Facebook's decision to empower The Daily Caller. Trump Jr. suggested it was a sign that the company was listening to Republicans.
Brent Scher @BrentScherFacebook weighs in, says it’s fake news that Trump called coronavirus a hoax https://t.co/dlex3PgMdR
Others celebrating include Benny Johnson, who works for Turning Point USA, itself a frequent source of misinformation. Johnson says that The Daily Caller fact-checking Politico is "exactly how the system should work."
Thanks for reading!