Corporate Fact-Checking Services Shouldn’t Be Our Defense Against “Fake News”

Since the tumultuous 2016 presidential election, politicians, pundits and pollsters alike have latched onto “fake news” as a hot issue. So, too, have corporate news media, which have found in this topic an endless source of content that is both“newsworthy” and a ratings-winning lure for audiences.

As president, Donald Trump has consistently denounced the U.S. press as “the enemy of the people” and has redefined “fake news” as a tool to dispatch any coverage, journalist or news outlet that does not serve his narrow self-interest. In doing so, Trump has fanned widespread distrust of journalism, as is well documented. But there has been less focus on how Trump’s weaponizing of “fake news” and his attacks on the press have laid the groundwork for self-appointed guardians of news integrity, such as Snopes, PolitiFact and NewsGuard, to assume positions of immense influence and power. Like the Hungry Fox in Aesop’s fable, who proposes to take care of the Hen, NewsGuard seeks our trust as the public arbiter of legitimate news.

NewsGuard rates online news sources for their credibility and transparency using nine criteria. Its browser extension and mobile app identify reliable sources with green icons and flag problematic sources with red icons. NewsGuard promotes its “Internet Trust Tool” to libraries and educators as part of its news literacy program; it also markets these services to advertisers as tools to protect their “brand safety.”

Corporate news organizations have, for the most part, uncritically embraced NewsGuard and accepted its stated aims at face value. Even PEN America, a nonprofit organization that is renowned for defending and celebrating freedom of expression, has endorsed PolitiFact and NewsGuard.

Yet who checks the fact-checkers? Corporate news organizations tend to sidestep this basic concern, but even a swift examination of NewsGuard’s advisory board calls into question whether it is an impartial, trustworthy protector against the threats of misinformation and propaganda. NewsGuard relies on former Homeland Security, CIA and NATO officials, and a variety of corporate spokespersons for “strategic advice” on “reliable journalism” and its “pivotal role in democracy.”

The members of NewsGuard’s advisory board include Michael Hayden, who ran the Central Intelligence Agency under George W. Bush; Leo Hindery Jr., once the CEO of AT&T Broadband; Kate O’Sullivan, the general manager for digital diplomacy at Microsoft; Anders Fogh Rasmussen, who served as secretary general of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) from 2009-2014; and Tom Ridge, the first director of Homeland Security.

Of course, NewsGuard is not alone in seeking expert counsel from sources whose credentials are questionable when it comes to freedom of expression: In 2019, for example, the Wall Street Journal reported that Facebook had “privately sought advice” on regulating online content from Tony Perkins, the president of the Family Research Council, an organization that consistently portrays the LGBTQ community as a threat to American society. GLAAD’s Commentator Accountability Project documents Perkins’s long record of virulent homophobic and transphobic claims.

Instead of simply promoting a well-informed public, NewsGuard and its ilk stand poised to wield whatever authority they are granted to promote narrow ideological perspectives and corporate economic interests that reflect the world views of powerful institutions such as Homeland Security, NATO, the CIA, AT&T and Microsoft. This mighty but narrow spectrum of interests ought to raise concerns about NewsGuard’s credibility as a judge of journalistic integrity and its ultimate purpose.

In the ongoing struggle to protect the public — and our democracy — from the threats of misinformation and propaganda, we have far better alternatives to NewsGuard. A robust independent press — grounded in core values of journalism, including independence, accountability and transparency — provides a first line of defense. And the positive impact of independent journalism can be multiplied exponentially by education efforts that foster widespread critical media literacy among the public.

The “Media Democracy in Action” chapter in every edition of Project Censored’s annual book series highlights organizations that model this potential. For example,

  • The Propaganda Critic website equips the public with tools to identify and resist media manipulation, including new, nefarious forms of digital disinformation, such as bots, sock puppets and “fake audiences”;
  • in Oakland, the nonprofit Center for Urban Excellence promotes digital and social media literacy programs for youth affected by incarceration and violence, helping them to understand and counter exploitation of their data by both advertisers and law enforcement; and
  • The Media, Inequality and Change (MIC) Center, cohosted at the University of Pennsylvania and Rutgers University, brings together engaged researchers and grassroots activists to promote publicly owned and democratically governed local journalism.

These three programs, along with many other equally exemplary organizations, provide robust alternatives to the top-down, corporate-driven model of news monitoring promoted by NewsGuard and its ilk.

Like Aesop’s wise Hen, we should recognize that self-preservation depends on critical skepticism of the Hungry Fox’s enticements. “I feel more secure on my own perch,” Hen responds, in one verse adaptation of Aesop’s fable.

We need not grant authority to NewsGuard to protect us from “fake news” or other forms of misinformation, especially when the necessary tools and resources to build our own, superior defenses are so close at hand.