In Facebook-led coalition to fight fake news, French publishers face resource strain

French publishers have welcomed Facebook’s and Google’s efforts to work with them to stunt the spread of fake news, though many are wary of how big a burden the projects will be to already stretched-thin newsrooms.

This week, Facebook revealed plans to work with eight media companies in France, including Le Monde, Libération and Agence France-Presse, to fact-check and filter news articles that have been flagged by Facebook users in the run-up to the elections in April and May. Once a user flags a story, at least two of the media partners must agree that it is false, supply links proving so, and then Facebook will flag the article as disputed in the news feed and issue a warning to users before they share it.

Most of the eight publishers are also involved with an earlier initiative, set up by a news coalition facilitated by British not-for-profit company First Draft News and is backed by Google News Lab. This project is called Cross Check and lets users submit questions and gather information from 16 French media partners. Facebook has also supported it, and in time the project may merge with Facebook’s eight-partner initiative, into a single channel, according to Le Monde editor-in-chief Michaël Szadkowski.

All publishers view the collaborations as an important step forward to reducing the plague of fake news, though some are unsure how sustainable it will be. There is even a little resentment in some quarters. “I’m not sure this is enough,” said Liberation’s head of digital, Xavier Grangier. “Journalists have the feeling they are working for Facebook and Google for free.”

The social platform’s approach is also a little more carrot than stick currently.

“Facebook could blacklist some websites or could get involved financially on Cross Check, as newspapers don’t really have that much resource nor money,” added Grangier.

That said, most are content that efforts are being made by the platforms.

“We are very encouraged by Facebook’s tool. But we will test and learn, and if we discover it’s something that needs too much resource, we will go back to them and ask if they can do anything to adjust,” said Gregoire Lemarchand, head of social networks for Agence France-Presse. “Even Facebook doesn’t know how many stories will be flagged — it could be one story a day or 10.”

Top of mind for all involved is figuring out how to reallocate newsroom resources to the experiments. Agence France-Presse will assign five people to overseeing the stories flagged on Facebook’s platform — people who were already dedicated to creating content for social platforms. Daily financial newspaper Les Echos will allocate three people from across print and web products to work on responding to the Facebook and First Draft news initiatives. Four of Libération’s fact-checking team will do likewise, and Le Monde also has a large fact-checking team.

“Newsrooms in France are not in good shape. Everyone works hard, and you’re having to ask some of them to work even more,” said Les Echos digital editor-in-chief Clémence Lemaistre. “But we know how important it is to be part of this; it’s just a work in progress. We will test and learn what works and adapt what resources we need accordingly,” she added.

Le Monde is likely the most advanced publisher in France for its fact-checking, and it has been prolific in its own fake-news crackdown, releasing fact-check products powered by a database of 600 unreliable websites. That means the publisher may be able to repurpose debunking material or articles it has already produced, which would help ease resources.

But it is hard to say just how much attention the Facebook feature will need, as it is reliant on users flagging stories.

“We don’t know how French users will react to the Facebook fake-news tool, nor if the platform has plans to promote it to users,” added Le Monde’s Szadkowski. “We heard from Facebook partners in the U.S. there weren’t so many stories reported by American users. So we will see.”

Publishers aren’t committed to having to write a set number of articles or responses as part of the partnership. Some editors feel strongly that working collaboratively with other media and Facebook on the tool is something that needs to stay in place well beyond the elections, having been haunted by the rise of fake news for years.

“We hope that the initiatives from Google and Facebook are not just for the elections, and that if a terror attack happens in the next year here, that these tools will have an impact on newsrooms to help the fake news during such attacks to not spread,” said Szadkowski.

Lemaistre echoed the importance of retaining the features and of collaborative efforts beyond the May election.

“The election is a great way to start, though fake news didn’t begin with the election. The rising populist atmosphere can be felt everywhere, not just France, and it is not going to stop the day after the elections, no matter who wins,” she said. “It is a very long battle. This is going to be a very long path to educate people who have forgotten that facts are important what fake news is. And we can’t change that in two months.”

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