Skip to main content

Notebook Technology

Handout

Professor Gregory Rummo with a conch shell that he found 10 miles from the coast. (Handout)

Technology

The fake news police

Who fact-checks Facebook’s fact-checkers?

The debate about bias at Facebook and other media intensified last month as investigators headed by former GOP Sen. Jon Kyl presented an “interim report.” Kyl’s Covington & Burling law firm interviewed 133 conservatives and heard concerns that Facebook’s third-party fact-checkers “skewed to the ideological Left.”

The report, though, did not present any case studies to support those concerns, so WORLD examined one specific bias claim in an attempt to see how Facebook’s fact-checkers work. Before we get to our analysis, though, it’s important to understand the power Facebook has.

The basics: Many people get their news from social media instead of news websites. Facebook, given charges of “fake news,” relies on five outside fact-checking groups: PolitiFact, the Associated Press, FactCheck.org, Science Feedback, and Check Your Fact. Conservatives often criticize the first four. The fifth is a subsidiary of the right-leaning Daily Caller. The International Fact-Checking Network (IFCN), part of the journalism think tank Poynter Institute, certifies the fact-checking organizations.

Individual fact-checkers at those organizations then rate posts social media users have flagged or that the fact-checkers themselves question. Facebook demotes in its news feed posts that contain (according to fact-checkers) false claims or false headlines. That means fewer views, likes, and comments for the publisher. Demotions can turn into lost opportunities to advertise or monetize through Facebook, warnings on Facebook pages, and loss of designation as a news page.  

Facebook, in short, forces news outlets to choose: remove the post or face heavy consequences.

OUR CASE STUDY begins in July when chemistry professor Gregory Rummo learned via Twitter that Townhall.com, a conservative news site, had retracted his recently published column, “Apocalyptic Sea-Level Rise—Just a Thing of the Past?” 

Rummo was surprised. A week earlier a Townhall.com editor had emailed him to say a Facebook fact-checker had flagged his column as “false news.” Rummo sent the editor information to validate the article and assumed that would resolve the issue. But it didn’t.

Facebook ordered Townhall.com to remove Rummo’s article because of the “false news” flag. 

If Townhall.com refused, it could face the penalties Facebook levies against “false news” publishers: demoted posts. No designation as a news page. No ability to make money through ads.

Rummo writes for the Cornwall Alliance, a group of Christian scholars and scientists known for their stance against “climate change alarmism.” The organization has about 200 articles published in various outlets per year, says Cornwall Alliance founder Calvin Beisner, but this is the first article to be retracted.

Townhall.com never told Rummo why it purged his article—not just from Facebook, but also from Townhall.com. Townhall.com editor Leah Barkoukis did say in an email to Beisner that Facebook “would not accept anything but a retraction,” even after Rummo and Beisner sent research to back up Rummo’s claims.

Who decided Rummo’s column was false news? Climate Feedback, a division of Science Feedback, fact-checked Rummo’s article and posted the analysis to its website. According to the fact-checker’s website, “The Science Feedback editor provides feedback to the journalists and/or editors of the outlet of the original article reviewed.”

But Rummo never heard from Climate Feedback—other than a tweet boasting the article’s retraction with what Rummo called “lethal triumphalism.” It tagged Rummo and Palm Beach Atlantic University, where Rummo teaches.

Townhall.com replaced Rummo’s article with a note saying the column “incorrectly cited a graph.” But Rummo accurately referenced a graph that “shows two previous periods when temperatures were warmer than they are now,” namely the Roman Warm Period and the Medieval Warm Period. Rummo says his article, which focused on sea level rise, “wasn’t really breaking any new ground” by including the graph.

If climate scientists disagree with the cited study’s findings, they should take issue with the study itself, Rummo says. Climate Feedback’s report calls Rummo’s citation of the graph “factually inaccurate” with “flawed reasoning” even though Rummo accurately stated what the graph showed. “It wasn’t really a fact that was incorrectly reported,” he said. “It was the fact that [Climate Feedback reviewers] don’t like.”

Climate Feedback subscribes to the IFCN code of principles, which requires a commitment to nonpartisanship, fairness, and an “open & honest corrections policy,” among other qualifications. Rummo and Beisner don’t consider the retraction nonpartisan or fair. The IFCN says it expects “fact-checkers to be more committed to correcting the record than anyone else” and requires its members to have “robust corrections policies.”

Is it possible to appeal the decision? Technically, yes. Townhall.com would need to appeal to the fact-checkers that found issue with Rummo’s article. But the website hasn’t appealed. I asked Townhall.com editors about the decision, but they did not respond to my phone calls or emails. They seem to be following the adage “Don’t poke the bear.”

Rummo also decided against appealing because he didn’t want to “stir up the hornet’s nest.” Whether or not fact-checkers agree with Rummo’s claims, Facebook’s ability to silence one side of an argument is alarming. And Rummo wasn’t even debating the amount or cause of global warming now: He was referring to a scholarly report on temperatures two millennia ago.

WHAT’S NEXT? Last month Facebook gave fact-checkers free reign of Instagram as well. Instagram (which Facebook owns) will limit the audience reach of “false information” posts by downplaying them on the site’s “Explore” page. The concept is comparable to Facebook’s, except Instagram users won’t even be notified when their posts are flagged.

Facebook/Instagram now wields doubly dangerous authority. Its fact-checking partnerships are intended to limit the spread of false news. But if fact-checkers are biased or just mistaken, they can stifle debate and even historical research that challenges current pieties.

Facebook last month announced new initiatives to address perceived anti-conservative bias: Four staff members will now deal with bias complaints. Facebook also announced it will appoint an oversight board with “a diverse range of intellectual viewpoints.” We’ll see whether that result is different from Google’s: When some on the left protested the appointment of Heritage Foundation head Kay Coles James to an ethics board, Google dissolved the board before it ever met.

Media Research Center President Brent Bozell denounced the Kyl report and Facebook’s response, calling it “nothing of substance.” But Kyl’s team promises additional reporting in several months: Kyl said, “There is still significant work to be done.”

—This article was corrected to reflect that the Cornwall Alliance has about 200 articles per year published in various outlets.

Share this article with friends.

Leah Hickman

Jim McAndrew with his drone (Leah Hickman)

Technology

Filming on the fly

An app developer shows how filming by drone is easier than ever

Jim McAndrew drives up in a Tesla Model 3. He parks the shiny white car on the side of the quiet street in Austin, facing orange construction barrels. Those barrels and the dust raised by heavy machinery are the only evidence of highway construction visible from his car. McAndrew has come to take aerial footage of the construction, but he’s not getting any closer: Thanks to the latest drone technology, he can do it all while sitting in his car.

McAndrew’s first exposure to drones was in 2014, when he bought himself a drone for fun. Growing up, his interests included action sports and cinematography. Later, he worked as a private pilot. As he put it, drones were “the nexus of all of those interests.”

This hobby-level interest in drones helped him recognize gaps in drone technology. Back then, little software existed for drones, and pilots could only fly them manually. Capturing good footage required rare skill with the remote control, making drone piloting an inaccessible task to average people. McAndrew had something the average person did not: a background in software and app development. So he set out to create an app that would simplify the job for drone pilots.

Five years later, McAndrew is still looking for ways to improve his already successful drone software and to make drone usage more hands- and hassle-free. His latest app is the one he’ll use to film the construction site.

Sitting in the driver’s seat of the Tesla’s immaculate interior, McAndrew pulls out a Mac laptop and an iPad. On the laptop, he opens the software for planning the drone’s flight over the highway construction. Although he’s dragging and dropping points onto a 2D map, added features in the new app allow him to preview the shots that the drone’s camera will capture while following that route. The preview resembles Google Street View, except the perspective is from the air. Using this rough footage for reference, he increases the planned speed of the drone to 20 miles per hour and adds another point onto the map. He opens the app on his iPad and locates the mission. Now it’s time to fly. 

McAndrew reaches out of the window and places the drone—a gray contraption with four retractable rotor arms—on his Texas-tinted sunroof. From the drone’s camera, a live feed of the blue Toyota Camry parked ahead appears on the iPad, which is connected to the remote control and will provide the drone with the information it needs to capture the construction site. With a single touch on the iPad, the drone rises from the sunroof, buzzing like an oversized bee. As the drone heads toward the cloud of dust, Jim holds the remote control. He’s not using it, though. “I’m not doing anything,” he says. “This is all 100 percent automatic.” 

There’s little to see through the windshield now, but the iPad on the center console shows a crisp, smooth video of the construction site—live feed from the drone. It resembles the view from an airplane window. “So now you drink your latte and let the drone make you money,” McAndrew jokes. 

But maybe it’s not quite a joke. He’s hoping that this software will make it easier and faster for drone pilots to gather useful data that will benefit industries including construction, real estate, and cinematography. The software stores each component of every mission, allowing users to reuse the same flight patterns and instructions later. Whether it’s locating equipment in a construction site for project managers, capturing the condition of a golf course green, or assessing the damage on a tower for cell phone providers, getting the necessary data won’t be such a pain.

In the meantime, though, drones face some opposition. “Like any new technology,” McAndrew says, “there’s the potential for people to be hysterical about it.” To him, concerns about privacy are the most legitimate. He acknowledges that drones, like any other technology, can be misused to take advantage of others—but he hopes social norms will prevent people from flying their drones into neighbors’ backyards or disrupting natural landscapes.

McAndrew’s neighbors used to complain when he tested drones in his backyard. Some approached him with their concerns, and McAndrew sensed that face-to-face conversations helped them realize he wasn’t spying on them. In his words, “I’m just a normal guy with a wife and three kids who lives in the suburbs, and I film a construction site every now and again.” 

A little over five minutes later, the drone returns to the Tesla. McAndrew uses his remote control for the first time to land the drone on the glass roof. And, just like that, he has filmed a whole construction site without leaving his air-conditioned car.

Share this article with friends.

Gerald Herbert/AP

(Gerald Herbert/AP)

Technology

Double jeopardy

Two threats pose serious risks to the American electric grid, but the United States could prepare 

The Trump administration recently announced U.S. intentions to withdraw from the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty, alleging repeated violations of the treaty by Russia. In response, Russian President Vladimir Putin warned that new advanced weapons could be aimed at American targets if the United States withdraws from the treaty.

Military analysts are reassessing the threat of nuclear war, given concerns about China, North Korea, and Russia. The horrors of blast damage and radiation are well-known, but the Electromagnetic Defense Task Force of the U.S. Air Force released a detailed report last November on the threat to the electric grid. One nuclear explosion high in the atmosphere could cause an electromagnetic pulse (EMP) that could disrupt or destroy America’s electrical grid and much of our electronic equipment.

The likelihood of this happening is small, but if it did, America might enter a new dark age without any of the services required by a modern industrial society. An EMP could also result from natural causes, as occurred in 1859.

That year Fred Royce was working for the American Telegraph Company. He saw brilliant auroras in the sky at his office near Washington, D.C. As Royce worked his telegraph, he received a severe electric shock. A witness saw a spark jump from his forehead to the equipment. Magnetic compasses gyrated wildly. Telegraph communications were severely disrupted.

Scientists now know the sun causes frequent disturbances on Earth, though most are brief and far less severe than what became known as the Carrington Event, named for a British astronomer. If such an event recurred in our electronic age, the results could be as catastrophic as a nuclear-caused EMP. The type of solar disturbance most likely to cause disruption on Earth is a coronal mass ejection (CME), an explosion of plasma and magnetism from the surface of the sun.

In March 1989 a geomagnetic storm caused by a CME resulted in the collapse of the Hydro-Québec power system. This event plunged Quebec into cold and darkness for nine hours, while technicians struggled to overcome the effects of the Earth’s violently fluctuating magnetic field. In 2012, space probes detected a massive CME that faced away from Earth. University of Colorado physics laboratory director Daniel Baker said in a 2013 paper, “If that CME had hit earth, the resulting geomagnetic storm would have been comparable to the Carrington Event.” Peter Riley, a physicist with Predictive Science Inc., estimated the probability of a Carrington-class storm at 12 percent in the next 10 years.

Another factor increasing geomagnetic disturbances comes from the Earth itself. Measurements from satellites of the European Space Agency show the strength of Earth’s magnetic field is steadily decreasing, perhaps as quickly as 5 percent per decade. This field protects the planet from the effects of solar storms. As it continues to weaken, it may allow solar storms to cause more damage.

Congress has been aware of these issues since at least 2000, when it established the EMP Commission. This commission provided extensive reports in 2004 and 2008 detailing the seriousness of the EMP threat to modern American society. The reports also gave practical and affordable guidance for improving the resiliency of the electric grid. Professor and EMP Commission member George Baker testified before Congress in 2015, stating that the cost of grid enhancements would be $3.30 per month per electric ratepayer.

If lawmakers, regulators, and industry leaders understand these issues, what makes progress on hardening the electric grid so elusive? Utilities say the U.S. government has responsibility in preventing a nuclear attack and should set regulatory requirements. The government has had compelling reports on the risks of the EMP threat for at least 10 years. Yet Congress fails to pass relevant bills and regulators remain largely silent.

—Stephen Patton is a technology-fluent graduate of the World Journalism Institute mid-career course

Share this article with friends.

Pages