The fact-checking industry, empowered by the vast resources of social media giants, is under sustained scrutiny amid a possible legal battle among the British Medical Journal, Facebook owner Meta and a contractor it pays to flag purported COVID-19 misinformation.
Facebook stopped some readers from sharing a BMJ investigation of "data integrity" issues in a Pfizer COVID vaccine trial, BMJ editors wrote in an open letter to Meta CEO Mark Zuckerberg in November. It also slapped "missing context" labels on posts that went through, warning users they could be penalized for sharing the article.
Contractor Lead Stories seemed more interested, however, in promoting guilt by association and policing political views than checking the facts, the journal's editors wrote in a blistering New Statesman op-ed last week.
The disputes have major implications for the public's ability to follow ongoing scientific debates around COVID, especially on masks, vaccines and other treatments.
Facebook throttled a Reason article questioning a school mask study cited repeatedly by the CDC on the word of a different fact-checker, Science Feedback, which later admitted to falsely attributing claims.
Asked about rumors that it was contemplating litigation against Meta or Lead Stories, BMJ spokesperson Emma Dickinson wrote in an email: "The BMJ is considering all available options." A defamation lawsuit would be easier in the U.K., which unlike the U.S. favors plaintiffs.
Facebook didn't respond to queries, but Lead Stories editor Alan Duke told Just the News the organization is "very confident about our fact-checking work and stand by everything we've written," including two followup articles in response to the BMJ allegations. "We've been very transparent."
He noted the organization has defeated two fact-check lawsuits in the U.S. by conservative pundits, Candace Owens and Gateway Pundit publisher Jim Hoft.
BMJ's November investigation was based on documents turned over by a whistleblower at Pfizer contractor Ventavia, Brook Jackson, whom BMJ describes as a 15-year veteran of clinical research coordination and management.
The report was one of the final items tweeted by mRNA vaccine pioneer-turned-critic Robert Malone before Twitter kicked him off the platform in December. Anti-vaccine activist Robert F. Kennedy Jr. also reprinted it, as he had other investigations written by the author, Paul Thacker.
Lead Stories said the flaws identified by Jackson would not "disqualify" the main Pfizer vaccine trial, but it didn't question the assertions in the report, the BMJ editors wrote Jan. 29. The fact-check contractor also emphasized that Jackson "does not express unreserved support for COVID vaccines" on her Twitter account, and it later minimized her qualifications.
Two days before the New Statesmen op-ed, Lead Stories defended its choices at length in a blog post titled "Context matters." It faulted BMJ for opening with a quote by Pfizer CEO Albert Bourla and mentioning the company "24 times by name" even though the problems were at Ventavia.
Facebook users responded by "wildly misinterpreting and overstating what the article said," the contractor said: "When your headline or article causes a large number of readers to conclude things you didn't write, you are doing something wrong."
When BMJ first protested, Duke passed the buck to Facebook for the "missing context" label, which refers to "otherwise true or real" content, but he also noted the BMJ report was being shared by anti-vaccine activists.
It wasn't the only credible medical source "affected by the incompetence of Meta's fact checking regime," the editors wrote in November, citing a purportedly botched Instagram fact-check of medical research nonprofit Cochrane.
Thacker, the investigation's author, previously investigated financial ties between physicians and pharmaceutical companies for the Senate Finance Committee under Republican Chuck Grassley.
"They're not fact checking facts," Thacker told the heterodox liberal writer Matt Taibbi this week. "What they're doing is checking narratives."
The significance of the controversy is showing "how easily reporting that is true can be made to look untrue or conspiratorial," tarring good journalism because controversial figures share it, Taibbi wrote.
BMJ itself was accused of sloppiness with facts shortly before the Pfizer contractor investigation was published.
It retracted claims about the purported funding source of the anti-lockdown Great Barrington Declaration and its authors' associations following complaints by one of them, former Harvard Medical School epidemiologist Martin Kuldorff.
Adverse event reports explode
Beyond policing narratives, fact-checkers may seize on one element of a source to discredit or distract from the broader themes of that source.
Washington Post fact-checker Glenn Kessler issued "Four Pinocchios" to Wisconsin Republican Sen. Ron Johnson's claim about hearing "story after story" of athletes "dropping dead on the field" after taking COVID vaccines.
Kessler claimed Johnson was relying on "debunked" foreign sources that lacked or buried disclaimers that correlation does not equal causation, but the fact-checker also buried a counter-example.
In the 28th of the 42-paragraph article, Kessler noted that a U.S. website's video "Why Are Healthy Athletes Collapsing?" included a disclaimer that "a causal link has not been established" between the vaccine and athletes' deaths.
Noting Sen. Johnson routinely cites reports from the Vaccine Adverse Events Reporting System, co-run by the CDC and FDA, Kessler said: "Anyone can submit a report to VAERS, and the reports are not verified. The numbers are basically meaningless."
CDC Vaccine Task Force spokesperson Martha Sharan declined to evaluate Kessler's characterization, but walked Just the News through VAERS.
More than half the reports for COVID vaccines between Jan. 1, 2021 and Feb. 1, 2022 were filed by manufacturers or healthcare providers, and 35% by patients, she said. COVID vaccine reports (742,007) were about 95% of all vaccine reports (784,483) during that time.
Healthcare providers themselves determine "the cause of serious adverse events," and the official who completes the death certificate or pathologist who conducts the autopsy determines the cause of death, Sharan said.
An FDA spokesperson said the VAERS mandatory reporting requirements for vaccine makers and administrators were "highly successful as in 2021, VAERS received over a million reports of adverse events compared to approximately 50,000 reports received in previous years."
She emphasized reports were required "regardless of the plausibility of the vaccine causing the event" and that it's "unreliable" to compare COVID vaccine reports to previous years because of this "robust reporting."
"A more suitable analysis is to use the reporting rate for [a] particular adverse event in VAERS and compare it to the background rate in the general population," which is how the feds flagged post-vaccine "safety signals" for Guillain Barre Syndrome, thrombosis with thrombocytopenia, myocarditis and anaphylaxis.
Kessler's fact-check did not contest the broad theme of Johnson's "second opinion" COVID panel discussion featuring military doctors.
Citing medical billing code data captured by the Defense Medical Epidemiology Database, the doctors found sharp spikes in miscarriages, myocarditis, cancer diagnoses, Bell's palsy and female infertility in the first 10 months of 2021, when COVID vaccines became widely available.
Asked to elaborate on why VAERS numbers are "basically meaningless," Kessler referred Just the News to Washington Post PR. Director of Communications Molly Gannon Conway wrote in an email that Kessler was referring to "Johnson's use of the numbers," not VAERS itself.