Canadian journalist Donna Laframboise. Former National Post & Toronto Star columnist, past vice president of the Canadian Civil Liberties Association. New posts: Mondays & Wednesdays.
When group think masquerades as ‘fact-checking.’
Vinayak Prasad is an oncologist who specializes in treating cancers of the blood. He’s also the author of two impressive books. I wrote about Ending Medical Reversal: Improving Outcomes, Saving Lives a few years ago. His latest is titled Malignant: How Bad Policy and Bad Evidence Harm People with Cancer.
Prasad believes many medical treatments rest on shaky evidence. He’s a vocal critic of conflicts-of-interests in the medical arena. He is, in other words, the kind of person who cares deeply about facts versus falsehoods. And yet, he’s appalled by what Facebook considers fact-checking.
It was written by Marty Makary, a professor at Johns Hopkins School of Medicine, and the editor-in-chief of MedPageToday. I’ve previously observed that the track record of people who declare the end of COVID-19 to be just around the corner is abysmal (see here, here, and here). But that’s beside the point.
Facebook is actively shadow banning Makary’s opinion piece. Since supposedly independent fact-checkers have determined it “could mislead people,” Facebook says it’s now “ensuring that fewer people see that misinformation.”
As Prasad explains, what’s happening here differs from healthy debate. Facebook’s decision rests on an analysis conducted by a third-party website called HealthFeedback.org, which claims to be part of an international fact-checking network that sorts fact from fiction.
According to HealthFeedback.org, three scientists who analyzed Maraky’s opinion piece “estimate its overall scientific credibility to be very low.” We’re told these scientists have “tagged” Maraky’s piece with descriptors such as “Cherry-picking,” and “Overstates scientific confidence.”
Prasad says the evaluation process is biased. He notes that while “the average scientist is not on Twitter,” the reviewers judging COVID-related material at HealthFeedback.org have large Twitter followings. Moreover, he says it isn’t hard to predict their opinions in advance:
I promise you, I can search Twitter and find three people who will review Makary positively and three who will review him negatively, just by perusing one’s past tweets.
Prasad says HealthFeedback.org’s “deeply problematic selection process” feels “like a high school clique. These are the popular kids. They are using their position to label views they disagree with as ‘misleading.'”
HealthFeedback.org does not, of course, ‘fact-check’ every medical article – or even every COVID article – circulating out there on social media. How it decides what to target is a mystery.
It’s worth noting, however, that while all media outlets make plenty of mistakes, headlines at HealthFeedback.org describe articles published in conservative-leaning outlets such as the Wall Street Journal, the New York Post, and the Daily Mail as unsubstantiated, speculative, unsupported, unfounded, and misleading.
On the other hand, articles published in left-leaning outlets such as the New York Times, the Washington Post, and National Geographic are described as accurately reported and insightful.
Prasad’s big-picture analysis is caustic:
I have to state the obvious: Facebook is a sea of garbage. Illogical arguments, false claims, harmful views – you can open Facebook and find whatever objectionable idea you wish…And yet, there is only a tiny subset of stories that the organization has sought to label “misleading.” And one of them is an op-ed by Makary? This whole scenario is bizarre!
…I again have to mention the Kafkaesque point that Makary’s piece is an op-ed, which by definition is his perspective based on his interpretation of data…Makary has gotten a show trial by Facebook, and is found guilty of misleading the public with his opinion article by a bunch of Twitter celebrities, whose opinion is well known. I don’t know if Makary is right or wrong, and time will tell, but what I do know is this process is not acceptable or fair. [bold added]
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