Meta's third-party fact-checkers have flagged as "false information" posts on Instagram and Facebook accusing the Biden administration of changing the definition of a recession in order to deny that the U.S. economy has entered one. This is yet another reminder that the project of purportedly independent fact-checking on social media is a highly partisan one, in which legitimately debatable opinions are passed off as objective truth.
Last week, the White House published an online article disputing the standard definition of an economic recession: i.e., two consecutive fiscal quarters in which GDP growth was negative.
"Both official determinations of recessions and economists' assessment of economic activity are based on a holistic look at the data—including the labor market, consumer and business spending, industrial production, and incomes," wrote the White House. "Based on these data, it is unlikely that the decline in GDP in the first quarter of this year—even if followed by another GDP decline in the second quarter—indicates a recession."
This post has been widely shared—and in some cases, mocked—on social media. Graham Allen, an Instagram personality, posted a video reacting to the post in which he asked Siri to define the term recession. Siri's definition: two consecutive quarters of negative economic growth.
But Allen's video is currently obscured on Instagram; users can still watch it, but they first have to click past a disclaimer that it contains "false information reviewed by independent fact-checkers." A similar label has appeared on some Facebook posts that also take issue with the Biden administration's wordplay.
The fact-checker is Politifact, a fact-checking website run by the Poynter Institute. Politifact is an official third-party fact-checking apparatus for Meta, the company that owns Facebook and Instagram. This means that PolitiFact is not like any ordinary website that offers a critique of a political narrative: PolitiFact's critiques are enforced by social media platforms.
In this instance, PolitiFact has rated as false the claim that "the White House is now trying to protect Joe Biden by changing the definition of the word recession." PolitiFact acknowledges that the Biden administration's efforts to spin current economic conditions as something other than a recession are political in nature. Nevertheless, the fact-checkers conclude that since the White House is citing the National Bureau of Economic Research's official definition, the administration is on solid footing.
Phil Magness, director of research and education at the American Institute for Economic Research, thinks PolitiFact is playing games.
"In this case, PolitiFact's 'ruling' is compounded by the fact that they have previously invoked the very same definition of a recession—2 consecutive quarters of GDP decline— in previous rulings to either provide cover to exaggerated Democratic claims about an impending recession or tear down Republican claims to the same effect," he tells Reason.
In a recent op-ed for The Wall Street Journal, Magness explained that the NBER is not the "official arbiter of recessions"; on the contrary, the federal government has often used the general definition preferred by most lay people, as well as Siri:
Mr. Biden's economic advisers are certainly free to make the case for a revised determination. The NBER takes a more holistic approach, in part because some recessionary events are shorter than two quarters or manifest in nonconsecutive quarters. But this rationale works against the White House's current argument, which seeks to delay acknowledging a recession even if a two-quarter decline is observed this year. The NBER committee has previously acknowledged recessions that fell short of a strict and sustained two-quarter contraction. This last happened during the 2000 dot-com bust, which played out in nonconsecutive quarterly drops.
While recognizing its limitations, the traditional definition of a recession provides a functional rule of thumb to interpret events as they unfold. The NBER determination is a rigorous and reputable historical indicator for dating the beginning and end of business-cycle troughs, but it isn't suitable for real-time policy determinations.
This is hardly the first time that the social media fact-checking industry has failed to add clarity to a contentious issue. Last year, PolitiFact rated as false the claim that COVID-19 is 99 percent survivable for most age groups.
"Experts say a person cannot determine their own chances at surviving COVID-19 by looking at national statistics, because the data doesn't take into account the person's own risks and COVID-19 deaths are believed to be undercounted," wrote PolitiFact.
Regardless of what "experts say," it is certainly the case that individual persons can estimate their likelihood of surviving COVD-19 based on national statistics. The disease's age discrimination is extreme: The overwhelming majority of young, healthy people are not at significant risk, especially when compared with elderly Americans. This was a curious fact-check, and it was hardly the first.
Science Feedback, another of Meta's fact-checking partners, wrongly labeled as false one of my own articles about the efficacy of mask mandates in schools. Not only was the fact-check incorrect, but it also introduced a new error: The fact-checker suggested that my article had erroneously claimed masks don't work to stop the spread of COVID-19 in schools. In actuality, my article had only asserted that there wasn't much compelling evidence that mask mandates had made a difference. (A year later, this distinction is moot, since even COVID-cautious public health officials now admit the cloth masks required in most schools do practically nothing to thwart the variants.) After I pointed out the mistake to Facebook, Science Feedback removed the "false information" label.
These are concerning mistakes. Media organizations routinely get things wrong, but the premise of fact-checkers was supposed to be that they are somehow above the fray, only weighing in when something can be proven or disproven quite definitively. Instead, they are often making dubious judgment calls on issues where reasonable disagreements exist.
"The fact-checking industry has become a partisan arbiter of political disputes, using claims of expertise that its writers do not actually possess to censor and shut down challenges to the political left," says Magness.