Fact checkers dropped by Meta after complaints, licencing issue

RMIT FactLab, an organisation working alongside Meta to ‘debunk’ misinformation and conspiracy theories circulating on social media regarding the Voice to Parliament referendum, has temporarily been suspended from its duties by the social media giant.

RMIT FactLab is a fact-checking, research and training hub based at RMIT University self-described as “committed to fighting the viral spread of misinformation that can harm people and undermine democratic processes”.

According to Meta, the suspension was due to criticisms of FactLab’s fact checking by opponents of the Voice referendum, and a lapse in accreditation from the International Fact-Checking Network (IFCN).

Up until Tuesday, FactLab was tasked with monitoring social media platforms including Facebook and Instagram.

Posts on Meta’s platforms that are fact checked by FactLab and other third-party fact checking organisations may have warning labels applied by Meta but they are not removed by FactLab.

FactLab now awaits an investigation by the IFCN to determine if their licence will be reinstated.

All organisations accredited with the IFCN apply for renewal annually.

“The International Fact-Checking Network requires participating organisations to demonstrate a commitment to nonpartisanship and fairness,” a Meta spokesperson told News Of The Area.
“The IFCN will determine whether RMIT FactLab’s expired certification should be reinstated.

“Considering both the nature of the allegations against RMIT and the upcoming referendum, we have decided to suspend RMIT from our fact-checking program pending the IFCN’s decision,” the spokesperson said.

“We remain steadfast in our commitment to stop the spread of misinformation on our services and continue to partner with AAP and AFP in Australia.”

On Wednesday a spokesperson for RMIT told News Of The Area that the IFCN “accreditation is currently in the process of being renewed”.

“The IFCN has confirmed that FactLab’s fact-checking meets all its standards and adheres to the IFCN’s Code of Principles.

“RMIT FactLab stands by the accuracy of its work to date and remains dedicated to slowing the spread of viral misinformation and disinformation through its fact checks.

“Fact checking aims to bring transparency to debate and reporting on issues of public importance and does not involve the removal or censoring of information.”

Dr Anne Kruger, Associate Director of RMIT FactLab and Director of the CrossCheck division, told News Of The Area on August 25, just four days prior to the suspension decision, that their IFCN licence was in place.

The ICFN is a small organisation, and as such there can be delays with processing renewals and these updates being reflected online.

“RMIT FactLab was established in January 2022 and is accredited by, and abides by, the principles of the International Fact Checking Network,” Dr Kruger said last week.

“The teams make up their own mind on what they fact check, monitor and verify.

“We have been established on the principles of independence and accountability – seeking to provide information consumers with the knowledge and tools to make informed decisions.”

The organisation describes itself as apolitical, providing services in a strictly bipartisan manner.

“For example in the Voice Referendum – we take a neutral stance and are not telling people how to vote,” Dr Kruger said.

Claims recently debunked by the FactLab team include that the Federal Government will rig the referendum for an Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Voice to Parliament to ensure a successful Yes vote.

After an investigation, FactLab found there was “no evidence” to suggest this was true.

Another claim recently circulated on social media came from Indigenous woman Mebbingarri Cindy Roberts, who suggested in a viral video that failure to vote in the Voice referendum would count as a Yes vote.

Again, FactLab found this claim to be untrue, as people who do not vote, or cast an informal vote, will simply not be counted.

One of the most widely circulated pieces of misinformation surrounding the Voice relates to the Uluru Statement from the Heart, a 440 word document which calls for the establishment of a First Nations Voice and a Makarrata Commission.

In an early August op-ed for the Daily Telegraph, and again on Sky News, Peta Credlin referred to “secret documents” that supposedly revealed the Uluru Statement from the Heart is not one, but 26 pages long.

This claim spread like wildfire on social media, however FactLab found that Ms Credlin was not telling the whole truth.

Released by the National Indigenous Australians Agency in March, the documents to which Ms Credlin refers contain background information only, compiled from regional discussions undertaken during the development of the Uluru Statement – they were not ‘secret’ pages of the Uluru Statement.

Even Credlin’s Sky News colleague Chris Kenny took issue with her misrepresentation of the documents.

“I really focus on the furphys being put around by the no case,” Kenny said on Sky News.

“One of them is this claim, that the Uluru Statement from the Heart is 26 pages long.

“That Labor has signed up to all 26 pages, secretly, and that there is a conspiracy to hide all this from voters.

“This is simply untrue.

“The documents that she (Credlin) has been brandishing, are the one page Uluru Statement, and attached to it, all sorts of background papers, discussion summaries and roadmaps and even diagrams.

“These are not part of the Uluru Statement,” he said.

Last week, Liberal Senator James Paterson, the Shadow Minister for Home Affairs and Cyber Security, wrote to Meta’s Director of Public Affairs, Mia Garlick, on the issue.

“I am deeply concerned by recent reports that Meta is censoring legitimate reporting on its platform, Facebook, relating to the upcoming referendum to enshrine an Indigenous Voice in the Australian constitution,” Mr Paterson wrote.

“The substance of the Uluru Statement is a legitimate issue on which people of good will can reasonably disagree and should not be limited on your platform.”

Other recent Voice-related theories debunked by FactLab include that the Albanese Government is funding the ‘Yes’ campaign, that an additional question will appear on the ballot about Australia becoming a republic, that the Voice referendum is illegal, and that the Voice referendum will end private land ownership in Australia if passed.

The Australian Electoral Commision has also been overrun with claims of disinformation, leading to the creation of a list of “prominent pieces of disinformation the AEC has discovered regarding the announced referendum on the Voice to Parliament”.

Such claims include that the AEC is campaigning for a Yes or No vote, that the Constitution has been invalid since 1973 and that the AEC will be throwing out No votes.

A full list can be found at www.aec.gov.au/media/disinformation-register-ref.htm.

Dr Kruger told News Of The Area that the spreading of misinformation on social media had been a growing issue in Australia in recent years.

“By the lead up to the election in 2019 I could see a growing sense of urgency where certain vulnerable groups were repeatedly targeted – usually over race or religion.

“It was really the events of 2019 and 2020 that were a watershed moment where ordinary Australians gained a heightened awareness of mis- and disinformation circulating online – be it via their mobile phones to laptops, and even letterbox drop brochures.

“This included higher exposure to and engagement with various forms of mis- and disinformation during the summer of bushfires, the 2019 federal election and ultimately the ‘infodemic’ of the coronavirus pandemic,” she said.

Dr Kruger said a variety of factors can make someone susceptible to believing and then sharing misinformation.

“Often it’s out of fear and even good intentions,” she said.

“Sometimes people don’t realise what they’re sharing is wrong, and sometimes even satire or parody gets shared as if it were real.

“Also, we play out our identities online, so sometimes people join a group or persuasion because they feel they can ‘belong’ to something, not realising that the ideology may not be best for society – or them as individuals for that matter.”

While Dr Kruger understands much misinformation is shared without malice, she believes there are those who share misleading content with far more negative intentions.

“At the other end of the spectrum there are some who see it as an opportunity to make money, and push division in society because they are scared they may lose some power in future, or do not understand the harm from racism and hate speech to our overall society.”

Given their standing in the community, Dr Kruger also stressed the responsibility on public figures to disperse factual, fair and balanced information.

“Politicians and public figures including influencers and celebrities must be aware of the weight of their words, simply because they are in the public sphere and have a larger platform, prominence and eminence,” she said.

“This means that they also need to be aware that they can be targeted or ‘used’ by those who hope to capitalise on this potential to amplify a message that spreads misinformation or disinformation.

“On the other hand there are fringe candidates that use misinformation to gain outsized online influence, or a reach they wouldn’t otherwise have.

“The Covid-19 pandemic has provided fringe candidates additional space, attention and audience.

“They are able to tap into the concerns and anti-establishment sentiment – this is unfortunate because often it can drown out or make it look like they have the support of citizens who simply at first wanted to use their democratic right to protest and ask questions.

“But often this is seen as an opportunity by others to take advantage of, and push an agenda.

“There is more attention focused during campaigns; elections are the perfect opportunity for agents of disinformation to target, and can also be rife with misinformation and bias.

“This is no less so with regards the Voice Referendum, when emotional issues and racism can be used as a scare campaign and to create a sense of overwhelm or confusion.”


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