Some of the biggest news stories in 2020 — Australia's bushfires, Trump's impeachment trial, the spread of the coronavirus — have been in part defined by the viral hoaxes, rumours and fake news spread widely on Facebook's platforms.
The social media giant, which recently boasted of having 2.5 billion monthly active users worldwide who post a billion pieces of content a day, is locked in a constant battle against its users over misinformation. And it acknowledges it has a problem.
One of the company's major tools in this fight is its third-party fact checking program.
Facebook doesn't fact check anything itself. Instead, it uses independent companies to review claims made on its platforms. In a program launched in late 2016, the company has 55 partners certified by the International Fact-Checking Network. Facebook does pay companies for the fact checks, although some companies have refused the money.
When a post is found to contain false information by a fact checker, the company labels the post as false, prompts users if they go to share it and claims that it limits the posts' reach by more than 80%.
Considering nearly a third of Australians get their news from Facebook, these fact checkers play an outsized role in determining what gets seen, and in what context, for the country's 17 million users.
So just how many people are working on figuring out what's real or not on Facebook in Australia? Seven.
Between them, they've completed 220 fact checks since April 2019 — about one check every one and a half days on average.
Facebook has two third-party fact checking partners in Australia: Agence France-Presse (AFP) and Australian Associated Press (AAP).
AFP has two digital verification journalists working in Australia — they've completed 140 checks since launching in April 2019.
Two sources with knowledge of AAP's FactCheck operation said the company has five people working in the team: an editor, deputy editor, an open-source & verification editor and two reporters. AAP's FactCheck has 80 fact checks listed on its website since May 27, 2019.
According to AFP's Australian fact checking editor Esther Chan — who also works as one of the reporters — these journalists work with other domestic staff and AFP's international fact checkers to verify posts made domestically and internationally.
"The team monitors news from the ANZ region particularly closely, and has published timely fact check reports on important news events, such as the Sri Lankan Easter bombings, Australian bushfires and the novel coronavirus," Chan told BuzzFeed News. "With misinformation having no boundaries, AFP’s fact checkers in Australia also look globally."
AAP's editor-in-chief Tony Gillies declined to answer questions about how many staff work as fact checkers, or the number of checks completed, but said it was an important role for the company.
"At a time when the public's trust in media is challenged, AAP Fact Check fulfils a vital need to journalism and the community at large," Gillies said to BuzzFeed News in an email. "We have invested well in fact checking because this work matters."
American news outlet The Hill reported in January 2020 that the US has six fact checking partners, with 26 full-time staff checking a total of 200 posts per month. Each partner has said it plans on expanding in the lead-up to the 2020 US presidential election. Facebook reported 190 million active users in the US and Canada at the end of 2019.
Neither Facebook nor its Australian fact checking partners have commented publicly on whether they are paid, or how much per fact check. Facebook referred questions from BuzzFeed News on its Australian fact-checking operation to AFP and AAP.
Nieman Lab reported company's fact checking partners received between USD$850-$1790 per fact check in July 2019. A source employed as a fact checker in Australia said those figures were similar to what their organisation is paid for a check.
The employee was concerned about how well the fact checking program is working to combat misinformation.
"Lies are cost-effective to generate, unfortunately the truth takes work and it takes time," they said. "It's incredible the sheer speed at which lies travel, particularly when they’re targeted at groups.
"[Facebook]'s asking us to get rid of the controversial stuff and they're banking most of the ad revenue."