Tag Archives: Lead Stories

corona marginalia: Facebook v. the BMJ

“We should all be very worried that Facebook, a multibillion dollar company, is effectively censoring fully fact checked journalism that is raising legitimate concerns about the conduct of clinical trials. Facebook’s actions won’t stop The BMJ doing what is right, but the real question is: why is Facebook acting in this way? What is driving its world view? Is it ideology? Is it commercial interests? Is it incompetence? Users should be worried that, despite presenting itself as a neutral social media platform, Facebook is trying to control how people think under the guise of ‘fact checking.’”

— Kamran Abbasi, The BMJ’s editor in chief

“I worry about the amount of power placed in the hands of these third party groups. There’s no accountability structure. There’s no democratic process to this. And so, while I do see a role for fact checking and think it’s far superior to the alternative—which is Facebook just taking down content—I still worry about the effect that it can have on legitimate sources.”

— Jillian York, director for international freedom of expression at the Electronic Frontier Foundation

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The British Medical Journal (BMJ) is a weekly peer-reviewed journal. Starting out as the Provincial Medical and Surgical Journal, it began publishing in 1840 and is one of the oldest and most prestigious medical journals in the world:

Over the decades, news of many important medical advances was broken in the pages of the journal. In 1847/48, the PMSJ carried a number of reports from pioneering anaesthetist Sir James Young Simpson urging the adoption and correct preparation and administration of undiluted chloroform for maximum benefit. Twenty years later, in 1867, The BMJ published the first of many seminal papers on antisepsis by Joseph Lister.

In October 1948, The BMJ published the first centrally randomised controlled trial (‘Streptomycin Treatment of Pulmonary Tuberculosis’— one of the authors being FRG Heaf of Heaf Test fame, which remained in use until 2005).

The journal also carried Richard Doll’s seminal papers on the causal effects of smoking on lung cancer and other causes of death in 1950 and 1954.

Click here to read more about the BMJ’s past achievements on its official website.

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Reputation notwithstanding, The BMJ has recently fallen foul of Facebook’s ever-vigilant arbiters of truth who are lodged deep in the bowels of FB’s infallible ‘fact checking’ HQ:

Beginning on 10 November, The BMJ’s readers began reporting a variety of problems when trying to share its investigation on Facebook. Some reported being unable to share it. Many others reported having their post flagged with a warning about “Missing context… Independent fact-checkers say this information could mislead people.” Facebook told posters that people who repeatedly shared “false information” might have their posts moved lower in its news feed. In one private Facebook group, of people who had long term neurological adverse events after vaccination, group administrators received a message from Facebook informing them that a post linking to The BMJ’s investigation was “partly false”

Readers were directed to a “fact check” performed by Lead Stories, one of the 10 companies contracted by Facebook in the US, whose tagline is “debunking fake news as it happens.” An analysis last year showed that Lead Stories was responsible for half of all Facebook fact checks.

Taken from The BMJ’s formal refutation of Facebook as published on January 19th, which continues:

The Lead Stories article, though it failed to identify any errors in The BMJ’s investigation, nevertheless carried the title, “Fact Check: The British Medical Journal Did NOT Reveal Disqualifying and Ignored Reports of Flaws in Pfizer COVID-19 Vaccine Trials.”

The first paragraph wrongly described The BMJ as a “news blog” and was accompanied by a screenshot of the investigation article with a stamp over it stating “Flaws Reviewed,” despite the Lead Stories article not identifying anything false or inaccurate. Lead Stories did not mention that the investigation was externally peer reviewed, despite this being stated in the article, and had published its article under a URL that contained the phrase “hoax-alert.”

The BMJ contacted Lead Stories, asking it to remove its article. It declined. The author of the article, Dean Miller, replied to say that Lead Stories was not responsible for Facebook’s actions.

John Campbell picked up the story and offered his own thoughts on Feb 7th:

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The same BMJ piece also goes on to consider related and equally erroneous Facebook ‘fact checks’ that have resulted in a similar censorship drive against the no less prestigious British medical research organisation Cochrane:

Cochrane, the international provider of high quality systematic reviews of medical evidence, has experienced similar treatment by Instagram, which, like Facebook, is owned by the parent company Meta.

A Cochrane spokesperson said that in October its Instagram account was “shadowbanned” for two weeks, meaning that “when other users tried to tag Cochrane, a message popped up saying @cochraneorg had posted material that goes against ‘false content’ guidelines”. Shadowbanning may lead to posts, comments, or activities being hidden or obscured and stop appearing in searches.

After Cochrane posted on Instagram and Twitter about the ban, its usual service was eventually restored, although it has not received an explanation for why it fell foul of the guidelines in the first place.

The spokesperson said, “We think Cochrane was reported as it had published a review on ivermectin and was ironically supporting a campaign about spreading misinformation. It seems sometimes automation and artificial intelligence get it wrong. And user reporting and mechanisms can be used to block the wrong people.”

In response, BMJ editors Fiona Godlee and Kamran Abbasi wrote an open letter to Mark Zuckerberg calling Lead Stories’ fact checking “inaccurate, incompetent, and irresponsible” and asking Meta to review the warning placed on The BMJ’s article and the processes that led to it being censored.

Lead Stories is taking an editorial position on vaccination, York [Jillian York, director of the Electronic Frontier Foundation] says, one that echoes Facebook’s own position. “The broader issue at hand is that companies like Facebook and some of the traditional media establishments are reasonably concerned about vaccine misinformation but have swung so far in the opposite direction as to potentially shut down legitimate questions about major corporations like Pfizer,” she said. The medical industry has a history of suppressing certain information, and citizens need to be able to question it, she added.

Click here to read the full BMJ article entitled “Facebook versus the BMJ: when fact checking goes wrong” written by Rebecca Coombes and Madlen Davies.

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