Fighting False News in Ukraine, Facebook Fact Checkers Tread a Blurry Line

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Fighting False News in Ukraine, Facebook Fact Checkers Tread a Blurry Line

MOSCOW — To understand the complexity of policing online disinformation, consider the small Ukrainian fact-checking group StopFake.

Earlier this year, Facebook hired StopFake to help curb the flow of Russian propaganda and other false news across its platform in Ukraine.

StopFake, like all of Facebook’s outside fact checkers, signed a pledge to be nonpartisan and not to focus its checks “on any one side.” But in recent weeks, StopFake has been battling accusations of ties to the Ukrainian far right and of bias in its fact-checking. The episode has raised thorny questions for Facebook over whom it allows to separate truth from lies — and who is considered a neutral fact checker in a country at war.

“They are empowering these organizations and these people to be making calls about what kind of information, what kind of opinions, what kind of communications are illegitimate or legitimate,” Matthew Schaaf, who leads the Ukraine office of the American human rights group Freedom House, said of Facebook and its fact checkers. “The question that needs to be asked is: Do these people deserve our trust?”

A Ukrainian news outlet, Zaborona, published an article this month citing photographs of a prominent StopFake member meeting with nationalist figures, including a white-power rock musician whose lyrics deny the Holocaust. StopFake denied having any far-right ties or bias, calling the Zaborona article part of a campaign of slanderous “information attacks.”

Zaborona’s editor, Katerina Sergatskova, said she fled Ukraine on Wednesday after receiving death threats. (StopFake has condemned the threats.) On Facebook, some of her critics had claimed, without evidence, that she was a Kremlin agent.

The episode underlines the high stakes facing American social media companies as they try to respond to disinformation in the world’s geopolitical hot spots. After being criticized for failing to stop the spread of disinformation during the 2016 presidential campaign in the United States, Facebook sought to avoid becoming an arbiter of truth by creating a third-party fact-checking program.

The program now includes more than 50 organizations that check facts in more than 40 languages, including global news agencies such as Agence France-Presse and Reuters alongside smaller groups like StopFake.

Yevhen Fedchenko, StopFake’s editor in chief, declined to comment for this article. He has told other media outlets that he plans to file a lawsuit to defend StopFake’s reputation, and he wrote in an email that “our legal team advised us against talking to media until the hearing in the court.”

The songs of one of the musicians, Arseniy Bilodub, include “Heroes of the White Race” and, referring to the Holocaust, “Six Million Words of Lies.” Anton Shekhovtsov, an external lecturer at the University of Vienna who studies far-right movements in Europe, said in an interview that he did not see StopFake itself as a far-right organization, “but I don’t think that they are nonpartisan.”

StopFake countered that Zaborona was employing “the fallacy of guilt by association” in presenting the photographs as evidence of far-right connections on the part of Mr. Suprun. Mr. Suprun did not respond to requests for comment.

“He has also been photographed alongside Rabbi Yakov Bleich, but this does not make him a member of his synagogue,” StopFake said in a lengthy response to the Zaborona article posted online. Mr. Suprun, the statement added, “is not involved in the joint fact-checking project StopFake has with Facebook.”

Ms. Sergatskova, Zaborona’s editor, is originally from Russia and received Ukrainian citizenship in 2015. A prominent Ukrainian journalist on Facebook called her a “lefty F.S.B. mold” — referring to the Russian spy agency — and other commenters posted her Kyiv home address before she went into hiding.

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