Fact checkers working with Facebook said it was up to the social media giant to respond to union minister Ravi Shankar Prasad’s letter to company chief executive Mark Zuckerberg, raising concerns over its fact-checking programme in India.

The platform cannot absolve itself of its responsibility to protect users from misinformation and outsource it to “shady organisations with no credibility”, the minister for law, electronics, IT and communications wrote to Zuckerberg. “A major issue with Facebook is the outsourcing of fact checking to third party fact checkers … We have seen in India that right from assessors for onboarding fact checkers to the fact checkers themselves harbour publicly expressed political biases,” he said.

In February last year, ahead of India’s general elections, Facebook had expanded its third-party fact-checking programme by adding five new partners — the India Today Group, Vishvas.news, Factly, NewsMobile and Fact Crescendo — to its existing partners like Boom.

Facebook works with International Fact Checking Network (IFCN), a unit of the Poynter Institute, to hire fact checkers.

“I think Facebook is best placed to talk about the fact checking process. He (Prasad) has given a generic statement on fact checkers. In the absence of any specific example, I don’t think there is anything to say,” Factly founder Rakesh Dubbudu said.

Fact Crescendo said it was accredited by IFCN and was bound by its principles which include a series of commitments over non-partisanship and fairness, transparency of sources, funding, organisation and methodology and an open and honest corrections policy. “All the fact checks done by us be it political or non political strictly adhere to the policies laid down by IFCN. Every story of ours carries factual pieces of evidences along with the process on how those were procured with details of the sources if any,” it said in a response to ET’s questions.

Boom declined to comment. Emails sent to NewsMobile and Vishvas.News went unanswered until press time Wednesday. No comment was immediately available from the India Today Group.

Emails sent to Facebook and IFCN did not elicit any response.

Two people working with Facebook for fact checking, speaking on the condition of anonymity, told ET that they followed ‘stringent’ standards.

“The IFCN principles are stringent in terms of non-partisan behaviour and funding. If you don’t meet their standards, whether you’re right wing or left wing it does not matter. Facebook should talk about its fact-checking process,” one of them said.

The other person said: “You have to conduct fact checking across the political spectrum as per the standards. It’s important to show if you’re fact checking the BJP you are also fact checking the Congress, and other parties like the AAP.”

However, external fact checkers said the platform should do more on monitoring content, such as when users flag an issue.

“There are issues with the way fact checking is done on Facebook. Facebook outsourcing fact checking to third parties is desirable unlike what Mr Prasad says, because you want independent third parties fact checking content on Facebook. But posts flagged by users as fake are found on Facebook,” said Pratik Sinha, the founder of fact-checking website Alt News which is not among Facebook’s partners.

“As per media reports, 17 Facebook pages which were sharing content from Postcard News reported for fake news in the past were restored by the company,” he said. “There is no visibility in the way Facebook operates. Are there audits on fact checkers? I don’t think people in power are being fact checked enough by Facebook.”

Ekta Sharma, the chief editor of Check4Spam, a non-profit entity that verifies posts on social media platforms and works with police departments in states like Karnataka, said she had often seen fake news originating from Facebook circulating on other platforms. “And this is despite repeated user comments flagging those posts as fake,” she added.

“They are probably not even doing 5% of what they could do which is why they have ended up with the mess they are in right now,” Check4Spam founder Shammas Oliyath said.

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