Rafael and Omar Rivero founded Occupy Democrats from a Kendall bedroom.
Rafael and Omar Rivero founded Occupy Democrats from a Kendall bedroom.
Photography by Alex Markow

How PolitiFact Got Its "Fake News" Tag Wrong on Occupy Democrats

With so much #FakeNews floating around on social media, the Florida-based PolitiFact has become an invaluable tool for parsing out what's true and what's not. Facebook has acknowledged that truth and joined forces with the national fact-checking site late last year in an effort to identify falsities and discourage their spread.

But just last month, when New Times asked why PolitiFact had classified the liberal Facebook-based news empire Occupy Democrats as "Fake News" in its Fake News Almanac, the site admitted Occupy Democrats should never have been on the list in the first place. The misclassification highlights the difficulty of judging fake news, even for the pros, and raises questions about the reliability of the almanac.

Occupy Democrats, the Miami-founded site profiled in last week's New Times cover story, was originally included among sites where PolitiFact says it found "deliberately false or fake stories" that "work hard to fool readers."

But PolitiFact writer Joshua Gillin, who maintains the list of about 200 offenders in the almanac, said Occupy Democrats made its way there after two of its posts were classified by fact-checkers as fake news. (One post tried to contrast President Barack Obama's number of vacation days against those of members of Congress; another post claimed a Republican lawmaker wanted schools to check children's genitals to ensure they use the correct bathroom.)

"If you read those, they had purposely tried to skew the information about those subjects in a way that it was completely absurd, the conclusions they were reaching," Gillin said. "When we made the almanac, everything labeled 'fake news' kind of got looked at there."

But, he added, the site should not have been included in the almanac because the majority of its posts reviewed by PolitiFact were not designated as fake news, and the two that were deemed fake news date to 2016. For a whole site to be classified as fake news, he said, it must regularly make a "deliberate attempt to mislead."

But the Occupy Democrats saga shows that such a classification can be difficult to determine.

In fact, in this brave new world where Facebook is the globe's largest publisher and anyone can set up a so-called news site and quickly build a following, deciding what constitutes fake news is no easy task. That's because though some posts are clearly bogus — like those that helped build the frenzy around the Pizzagate conspiracy, for instance — others fall into a gray area of exaggerated or distorted truths, making it difficult to know where to draw the line.

“It is a very slippery slope,” Eugene Kiely, the director of FactCheck.org, told Bloomberg. “There’s bad information out there that’s not necessarily fake. It’s never as clear-cut as you think.”

After being roundly criticized for its inaction against fake news in the wake of last year's election, Facebook announced in December it was partnering with PolitiFact, Snopes, FactCheck.org, and other third-party fact-checkers. Under the partnership, the organizations check the truthfulness of stories flagged by Facebook users.

If fact-checkers conclude a post is inaccurate, it will appear on Facebook news feeds tagged as disputed, with a link to an article explaining why. Readers will receive a warning before sharing the posts.

"We believe in giving people a voice and that we cannot become arbiters of truth ourselves, so we're approaching this problem carefully," Adam Mosseri, the vice president of product for news feed at Facebook, wrote in a blog post. "We've focused our efforts on the worst of the worst, on the clear hoaxes spread by spammers for their own gain, and on engaging both our community and third party organizations."

Gillin said PolitiFact's Fake News Almanac is independent of the site's fact-checking work with Facebook. He said the almanac is meant as a way for readers to identify sources they might want to "be wary of, pay attention to, look at some of the content with somewhat of a dubious eye."

Yet the almanac is subject to change. Gillin said at least one other site has been removed after its owners disputed its inclusion. In the case of Occupy Democrats, he said that after reviewing it, "we just elected to take them off." PolitiFact still believes the two posts categorized as fake news were deliberately misleading.

"But it didn't meet our broader definition, however amorphous," Gillin said, "of what would qualify as fake news."

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