By Jeff Horwitz 

There is no coronavirus vaccine available for dogs being withheld from humans.

It isn't necessary to close your windows because military helicopters will start spraying disinfectant.

And baby-formula manufacturers aren't sending freebies to people who call their customer hotlines.

These are among the viral social-media memes debunked by Lead Stories, a fact-checking site co-founded by Los Angeles entrepreneur Alan Duke.

At a moment when there are global scarcities for items as diverse as toilet paper and ventilators, Mr. Duke offers something else in short supply: fact checking.

The former CNN producer's company, Lead Stories, helps Facebook Inc. and other social-media platforms limit the spread of virus-related misinformation by flagging it as false. Business is booming, thanks to a surge of posts that are both dangerous and harder to track than many other forms of what is known as fake news.

The claims that Lead Stories debunks are then labeled as false on Facebook, which limits their spread and links to Lead Stories' reviews. A staffer combs the platform looking to identify and label duplicates that spring up.

Already ramping up with funding from Facebook to combat misinformation in the 2020 U.S. presidential election, Mr. Duke and others in the industry have pivoted to coronavirus almost full-time.

"We've maxxed out all our goals for the month," he said halfway through March, referring to the company's contractual targets for Facebook fact-check volumes. Lead Stories continues to review Facebook and Instagram content, and review material from Twitter, YouTube and other platforms that don't pay it, posting fact checks to its own site. Since its first coronavirus fact check in mid-January, Lead Stories has fact checked more than 200 viral coronavirus claims.

Other fact checkers have become similarly focused, organizing an ad-hoc international task force to identify misinformation that has hopped national borders and languages as quickly as the virus itself.

Lead Stories has traditionally battled political publishers and for-profit hoaxers in places ranging from the U.S. to Macedonia and Pakistan. While many coronavirus posts carry international content -- the meme warning of military disinfectant drops appeared in Europe and elsewhere -- they generally appear to be noncommercial, produced by pranksters or people promoting misguided home remedies, Mr. Duke said.

Such apparently organic content also coexists with ideologically driven falsehoods, such as the claim that "60 Democrats" in the U.S. Senate blocked coronavirus relief payments to Americans.

The content is often memes and images rather than purported news stories. And where Lead Stories has become used to complaints from the publishers of stories it rated as false, it now hears from regular users upset that it has debunked a meme they shared. "Sharing this stuff is how people connect to their friends and co-workers," Mr. Duke said. "It's embarrassing when it shows up in their timeline that they shared something that's wrong. That's not something we've been through before with fact checking -- this is much more personal."

As is common with Facebook's more than 60 global fact-checking partners, Lead Stories was launched with independent funding but has sustained itself in part with Facebook money. The tech giant started the fact-checking program in late 2016 after criticism of how it handled misinformation during the 2016 presidential race. But human fact checkers remain central to Facebook's defenses, and even before the coronavirus pandemic the company was ramping up its investments.

Mr. Duke declined to say by how much money Facebook is paying Lead Stories, but said it was a multiple of the $359,000 it earned under its 2019 contract.

Mr. Duke and his co-founder Maarten Schenk, who works from his home in Belgium, were the company's sole full-time employees until last November, when Facebook told U.S.-based fact-checking partners that it would bankroll a sharp expansion of their work ahead of the 2020 presidential election.

"Fighting misinformation isn't something one company can do alone," said Campbell Brown, head of news partnerships at Facebook. "The more the industry is sharing best practices and companies are learning from each other, the better the outcomes will be for people."

The funding let Lead Stories increase hiring. It now has 10 full-time employees and six part-time fact checkers, mostly former CNN employees. Mr. Duke said it pays "on par" with the network's six-figure salaries in some instances.

Facebook funds about half of the international publishers and fact-checking organizations that are part of a coronavirus-specific fact-checking alliance coordinated by the Poynter Institute's International Fact-Checking Network.

"We were here before Facebook started working with us," said Cristina Tardáguila, the IFCN's associate director, of the fact checkers. "But there is no other program like this."

That might change. In January, video-sharing app TikTok said it would begin reviewing user reports of misinformation with a U.S.-based moderation staff, and that it was working with third-party groups.

A reporter, editor, producer and special-projects manager at CNN for 26 years, Mr. Duke was doing celebrity-focused profiles and investigations out in Los Angeles when he resigned in 2014. He spent five months working for the National Enquirer's parent company before quitting to co-found Lead Stories.

The work can be rough, Mr. Duke said, with one employee quitting after learning about the frequency that Lead Stories' reporters and editors have received threats from people they fact check.

Staffers consult public-health guidance and identify entities with expertise or firsthand knowledge about specific rumors. To debunk the meme about free pandemic-time baby formula, for example, Lead Stories reporters spoke with numerous manufacturers.

The company reviews a tiny fraction of the billions of social-media posts produced each day. It uses a tool built by Mr. Schenk, called Trendolizer, that tracks posts on the cusp of spreading rapidly. Facebook also gives its fact-checking partners a queue of posts that are suspicious or have already been flagged by users.

Lead Stories' traffic is up nearly 10-fold, Mr. Duke said, with about 8,000 users reading its reviews at any given time -- a number that reflects how Facebook slows the spread of posts that it labels as inaccurate.

Write to Jeff Horwitz at Jeff.Horwitz@wsj.com

 

(END) Dow Jones Newswires

March 30, 2020 14:19 ET (18:19 GMT)

Copyright (c) 2020 Dow Jones & Company, Inc.
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