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Why A Company In The Netherlands Has Stopped Helping Facebook Fact-Check Content


Facebook says it relies on more than 50 fact-checking partners around the world to flag posts that are spreading falsehoods. It just lost its only fact-checking partner in the Netherlands. A Dutch news site called Nu.nl says the same rules should apply to posts from politicians as other Facebook content. That goes against the policy Facebook announced this fall.

The news site's editor-in-chief Gert-Jaap Hoekman joins us now from Utrecht. Hi. Welcome to the program.

GERT-JAAP HOEKMAN: Hi. Thanks for having me.

SHAPIRO: So why did you quit fact-checking for Facebook?

HOEKMAN: The direct reason why we quit was that Facebook emphasized that political speech is not a part of this program. And that was for us, well, a quite a big problem.

SHAPIRO: Setting aside political speech, there's still a whole world of things for you to fact-check. Why not just say, we disagree with your position, but we still find this to be an important role that we're going to continue doing?

HOEKMAN: Yeah, good question. Well, when we started this - I mean, maybe we should go back a little bit in time. When the program started in the Netherlands, this was just after the Trump election in the U.S. And the whole reason why this program was brought up in the first place was about things that could harm democracy or elections. So that was one of the reasons why we got involved in this program, that we - well, we wanted to see if this problem was also happening in the Netherlands. And if so, we wanted to contribute to solving the problem.

Almost immediately, we found out that this was not really the case. A lot of stuff that we were fact-checking was what you could call urban myths - a lot of health issues, a lot of...

SHAPIRO: Now when you say this is not really the case, do you mean there was not political disinformation, or just that that's not what you were being asked to fact-check?

HOEKMAN: In the beginning, there was not political misinformation.


HOEKMAN: There were a lot of really - well, let's put it - creative cures for cancer, which are also, I mean, good to fact-check and can be harmful if people read them. But they don't really harm democracy.

SHAPIRO: I understand. There was one story you fact-checked that said eating meat is not harmful to the environment. And you said false, eating meat actually does have a negative environmental impact.

HOEKMAN: True, but that was, like, years later. Only in the beginning, it was about other stuff. But we think, as you say, well, there's a whole lot of stuff that you can fact-check. But if you have a principle problem with something, then I think you should at least, well, have a good conversation about it with Facebook, which we had. But we just disagree on this matter.

SHAPIRO: So let me describe Facebook's position here. They say it is not Facebooks role to, quote, "referee political debates and prevent a politician's speech from reaching its audience and being subject to public debate and scrutiny." How do you respond to that?

HOEKMAN: We actually agree on that. But we say that if a politician distributes false information, that has nothing to do with a freedom of speech or freedom of political speech. That is just fake news, basically. Well, let me give you one example. There was a political body in the Netherlands that accused other political parties of voting pro-child marriages, which was just not the case. For us, that has nothing to do with freedom of speech. It's just fake news. And if you distribute that, I think that's harmful.

And I think as journalists, you have a role too - well, to fact-check that things, which we do on our platform. But if Facebook doesn't allow us to do the same on their platform, that - I mean, that's their choice. But then they need to find another partner.

SHAPIRO: We have seen such a huge increase globally in misinformation on social media. Ultimately, do you think the kind of fact-checking that your organization has done can ever really solve this problem?

HOEKMAN: Difficult question, to be honest, because fake news in the Netherlands wasn't really a very big problem. And actually, Facebook did share some of the effects we - our work had. And we actually did see that the fact-checking got posts to be shared less and less. So it does play a role. But it was only us, right? So it was only one fact-checker doing the work, which is obviously one against a lot of Facebook users. I don't think you can win that - in that sense.

SHAPIRO: That's Gert-Jaap Hoekman, editor-in-chief of the Dutch news site Nu.nl.

Thanks for speaking with us today.

HOEKMAN: Thanks.

(SOUNDBITE OF PHOENIX'S "SCHOOL'S RULES") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.