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Facebook Censors a ThinkProgress Story on Kavanaugh After a Conservative Site Calls It “Fake News”

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Last week, ThinkProgress published a report by senior fellow Ian Millhiser headlined “Brett Kavanaugh said he would kill Roe v. Wade last week and almost no one noticed.” But then a Facebook fact checker with the conservative outlet The Weekly Standard declared it “fake news,” leading the piece to be targeted and demoted by the social media site. The Intercept then republished Millhiser’s piece, with editor-in-chief Betsy Reed writing, “The story was effectively nuked from Facebook, with other outlets threatened with traffic and monetary consequences if they shared it.” We speak with Ian Millhiser, a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress Action Fund and the justice editor for ThinkProgress.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman. Last week, ThinkProgress published a report by senior fellow Ian Millhiser that was headlined “Brett Kavanaugh said he would kill Roe v. Wade last week and almost no one noticed.” The story was declared “fake news” by a Facebook fact checker with the conservative outlet The Weekly Standard, which attacked Ian Millhiser in an editorial headlined “Kavanaugh Needs No Defense.”

Millhiser wrote that “Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh may have committed a very serious crime—possibly even a sex crime. Or maybe he didn’t. That’s what we just learned from an extraordinarily vague press statement by Sen. Dianne Feinstein,” unquote.

The editors at The Weekly Standard responded, quote, “Nope. That’s not what we 'learned' from Feinstein’s statement, because you can’t 'learn' that maybe a thing happened and maybe it didn’t. … all we’ll learn about the mendacious commentary on it from hitmen like Millhiser—is that Senate Democrats are willing to disgrace themselves and defame a good man in order to propitiate their most vicious supporters,” _The Weekly Standard wrote.

For more, we continue our conversation with Ian Millhiser, the senior fellow at the Center for American Progress Action Fund and the editor of ThinkProgress Justice, as well as Dahlia Lithwick, senior editor at Slate.com.

This is complicated, Ian.

IAN MILLHISER: Right.

AMY GOODMAN: Can you please explain what happened?

IAN MILLHISER: Yeah, sure. I mean, suffice it to say, the folks at The Weekly Standard don’t like me very much. I think that their assertion that Brett Kavanaugh is such a good man is not wearing well this week. But what happened? So there’s two different pieces here, and I think the first piece is the more important one.

So, I wrote this piece, and it made a legal argument. It said that in Brett Kavanaugh’s confirmation hearing, he said that he would apply something called the Glucksberg rule in determining whether or not a right is protected by the Constitution. And I took that statement, and then I laid it against another statement in—he made in 2017, where he said that Roe v. Wade is inconsistent with Glucksberg. So, in his hearing, he said he would apply Glucksberg. In 2017, he said Roe v. Wade is inconsistent with Glucksberg. It’s not that hard to figure out what he thinks about Roe v. Wade.

And The Weekly Standard is one of five outlets, the only ideological outlet—there’s no liberal outlet that has the power to do this—that Facebook has given the power to censor other content that is shared on Facebook, if that content is deemed to have a factual error. And so, The Weekly Standard decided—and it’s this really narrow semantic dispute. In my headline, I said he said it, and no one noticed. You know, does the word “said” mean that he has to say the exact or not say the exact words. I have heard more opinions on that question this past two weeks than I ever thought possible. But in any event, they use this power to censor pieces, to censor my piece, to label it fake news, to impose the exact same sanction on me and this piece that would be imposed upon a piece that claimed that the pope endorsed Donald Trump or some other completely fabricated lie.

And what our position has been throughout all of this is The Weekly Standard are ideological enemies, so an outlet that personally attacked me in an editorial last week should not have the power to censor my work or any other liberal outlet’s work. It is a conflict of interest, and Facebook should strip them of that authority.

AMY GOODMAN: Now, so, let’s talk about what happened next. The Intercept, which is the one that broke the story about the secret letter that Dianne Feinstein had—

IAN MILLHISER: Right.

AMY GOODMAN: The Intercept republished your piece—

IAN MILLHISER: Right.

AMY GOODMAN: —saying, “The story was effectively nuked from Facebook, with other outlets threatened with traffic and monetary consequences if they shared it.” This is extremely significant. Explain—this isn’t just—

IAN MILLHISER: Right.

AMY GOODMAN:The Weekly Standard weighing in. Explain what happened with Facebook.

IAN MILLHISER: Sure. So, the way that Facebook works—so, I mean, if I can get a little bit into the business of journalism, I don’t think it’s a big secret that digital journalism is driven by clicks. You know, the more people who come and visit the site, the more ad revenue you get, and that means the more journalists you’re able to employ.

Facebook has a system—and they send about 10 or 15 percent of _ThinkProgress_’s total traffic to us—Facebook has a system where if one of these five fact checkers—and again, it’s four nonpartisan outlets and The Weekly Standard that has this power—if they deem something to be fake news, then it loses 80 percent of the traffic it would have gotten from Facebook. That’s the first thing that happens.

The second thing is that a push notification is sent to everyone who shared it, informing them that it is, quote, “false news.”

And then the third thing that happens is everyone who shared it, even the people who shared it before The Weekly Standard weighs in, gets punished. All of their content gets downgraded and is less likely to show up in people’s newsfeeds from that point forward.

So The Weekly Standard has an extraordinary power, not just to censor their rival outlets, but to effectively try to nuke the bottom line of outlets that they disagree with. And our position is, look, you know, if I were a defense attorney and I walked into court and the prosecutor was sitting there wearing a black robe and wielding a gavel, I would say that’s not appropriate, because you’re not allowed to be the judge of your own case. When you are one of the adversaries in a debate, you shouldn’t also get to judge who is telling the truth.

AMY GOODMAN: Dahlia, you want to weigh in here?

DAHLIA LITHWICK: No. I mean, I couldn’t agree more with Ian. For one thing, Mark Stern and I had written a very similar piece about Glucksberg and Whole Woman’s Health a few days—you know, at around the same time that Ian wrote his. Ours didn’t get tagged. His got tagged entirely for a semantic internal fight about literally what “said” means.

AMY GOODMAN: And the significance of this? I mean, Facebook determines what so many people read. I mean, it’s as if you’re talking on the telephone—that’s what it’s basically become—and the phone company is beeping out words that it doesn’t agree with, when Facebook has this kind of monopoly on information when they deem something as not true. And I want to take this a step further. Ian, if you can say who the fact checker was that deemed your piece fake news?

IAN MILLHISER: Yeah. So the name of the fact checker, it’s Holmes. I think his last name is pronounced Lybrand. And he graduated from college in 2016. He doesn’t have a law degree. I mean, based on when he graduated from college, he’s probably 25 years old. And what Facebook has done here is they have given a single 25-year-old staffer at The Weekly Standard the power to decide which news gets read and which news does not get read.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to take this a step further, because we’ve been talking about this astounding report of Dr. Blasey Ford, who says she is now willing to testify before the committee about what she alleges Brett Kavanaugh did to her in high school, the attempted rape.

IAN MILLHISER: Right.

AMY GOODMAN: Then she’s made available all sorts of information in The Washington Post piece—the notes of her therapist in 2012 when she was in couples therapy with her husband describing what happened to her, and again in 2013 when she described his attempted rape. The third man in the room while she alleges Brett Kavanaugh held her down, groped her, tried to rip her clothes off and put his hand over her mouth and she was terrified she could die—the third man in the room was Mark Judge—

IAN MILLHISER: Right.

AMY GOODMAN: —Brett Kavanaugh’s friend from the elite prep school. Mark Judge is a filmmaker who writes for, among other publications, The Weekly Standard.

IAN MILLHISER: Yeah, yeah. I mean, there’s a lot of things about Mr. Judge that I think are sketchy. He apparently wrote a memoir. It’s sort of thinly fictionalized. Instead of calling the school Georgetown Country Day, which is its actual name, he calls it Loyola Country Day. There’s even a character in that book who’s briefly mentioned named Bart O’Kavanaugh. And Bart O’Kavanaugh at one point gets drunk and pukes in a car. But Mr. Judge’s book is pretty tremendous. You know, he talks about a lot of drinking and mistreatment of women. His yearbook quote at Georgetown—at the prep school that he and Kavanaugh went to—is “Some women need to be beaten like a gong,” or something to that effect. Or I believe it’s “Some women need to be beaten regularly like a gong.” So, this is the character witness that Brett Kavanaugh is bringing in to say, “Yeah, I didn’t do it. You know, he saw what happened, and I wasn’t there.”

AMY GOODMAN: And the book Mark Judge wrote is called Wasted: Tales of a GenX Drunk

IAN MILLHISER: Right.

AMY GOODMAN: —which describes his blackout drinking and a culture of partying at his elite high school.

IAN MILLHISER: Right. Yeah, no, I mean, it’s this extraordinary book that like, if you were to write something to destroy your credibility, and to destroy your credibility particularly in this instance, where the accusation is that you and a classmate got drunk and participated in the sexual abuse of a woman, this book would completely blow your credibility.

AMY GOODMAN: Dahlia Lithwick, go back to Anita Hill. Go back to the hearings. Of course, the echoes of this are so strong right now.

DAHLIA LITHWICK: Yeah, I mean, I think it’s such an amazing—the arc of this is extraordinary, because if you remember after Anita Hill testified in front of an all-male Senate Judiciary Committee, Senate Democrats declined to bring forward witnesses who would have corroborated her story on both sides. It was—

AMY GOODMAN: And chief among those Democrats at the time—

DAHLIA LITHWICK: —was Joe Biden.

AMY GOODMAN: Senator Joe Biden.

DAHLIA LITHWICK: And it was a disaster. It was a dumpster fire. But it led to what we now nostalgically think about as the Year of the Woman. And women like Dianne Feinstein, a lot of women in the Senate, say that was the watershed. And women were furious at the treatment of Anita Hill, and pushed women into the Senate in record numbers.

Here we are at the other end of that arc. That was, you know, a long time ago, and yet it seems as though very little has changed. And if you look at, you map the points of that story onto what we’re seeing now, here’s a woman who comes forward reluctantly. She doesn’t want to be outed. She is outed. This all happens after the hearing is formally over. I mean, at each turn, it looks exactly the same.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, Anita Hill has issued a statement on the sexual allegations against—the sexual misconduct, attempted rape allegations against Brett Kavanaugh. She said, “Given the seriousness of these allegations, the government needs to find a fair and neutral way for complaints to be investigated…I have seen firsthand what happens when such a process is weaponized…” she said.

So now I want to go back to a clip from the 1991 confirmation hearings for Supreme Court nominee, at the time, Clarence Thomas, when Anita Hill testified during the hearing alleging sexual harassment against Thomas. This is from Anita Hill’s opening statement.

ANITA HILL: After approximately three months of working there, he asked me to go out socially with him. What happened next, and telling the world about it, are the two most difficult things, experiences of my life. It is only after a great deal of agonizing consideration and sleepless number of—great number of sleepless nights that I am able to talk of these unpleasant matters to anyone but my close friends.

AMY GOODMAN: So, Dahlia Lithwick, talk about this, the enormous pressure that Anita Hill is under. And right now—I mean, I think something that goes clearly to the credibility of Dr. Christine Blasey is that she felt she needed to tell someone, but did not want to come forward, did not want this to be made public, but when reporters started crawling around her workplace and her home, were there and asking her to speak, she felt if this story is going to be told, she wants it to be told by her. Now this is going to be at great, great personal expense, she fears.

DAHLIA LITHWICK: Remember that hearing. Remember what happened to Anita Hill, that there were Republicans on that committee who coined the term “a little bit nutty and a little bit slutty.” Right? She was derided for being promiscuous. She was derided for being a liar. They said, “Why didn’t you come forth at the time?” I mean, all the questions about her integrity. You know, “What do you mean, you didn’t report?” He was her boss, and she didn’t report? How is that possible? And at every turn, given the opportunity to actually listen to what she was saying or to malign her personally, the decision was made to malign her personally.

And she has spent the rest of her life—you know, she had said after the hearing, “I’m going to take a year and try to sort out this sexual harassment in the workplace thing.” All of these years later, she’s still doing it. And so, I think if you look at the ways in which—and she is amazing, by the way. I just want to say—like having gone through the wood chipper, she is extraordinarily hopeful that the sort of arc of the moral universe is trending toward fairness.

But the ways in which this maps so perfectly onto her experience—and immediately when Dr. Ford came forward, we started hearing murmurs about “maybe she was drunk” and “why didn’t she come forward?” and “they were just kids” and “who among us hasn’t assaulted a 15-year-old drunkenly at a party?” And so, in a very profound way, what’s depressing about this is how little has changed, even though so much should have changed right after her hearing.

AMY GOODMAN: So, Ian Millhiser, what do you foresee for this week? There were discussions that maybe staffers would speak to both Brett Kavanaugh—

IAN MILLHISER: Right.

AMY GOODMAN: —and Dr. Blasey, but clearly Dr. Blasey has set the stakes much higher now by saying she is willing to testify.

IAN MILLHISER: Right.

AMY GOODMAN: She didn’t want to take this risk, but at this point she feels it is her only choice.

IAN MILLHISER: Yeah. I think all eyes are going to be on a handful of Republican senators, certainly Collins and Murkowski, who people have been looking at for a while as like the only realistic votes against Kavanaugh. Jeff Flake, who is a flake and like has a tendency to say big things and then not follow through on them, but maybe this time he will, and he will stop a positive vote from happening on Kavanaugh in the committee. Maybe Bob Corker. There’s a handful of Republicans.

And the thing to keep in mind is this: Two Republican senators have the power to stop this. If two Republican senators come forward and say, “We will vote no on Brett Kavanaugh until we get to the bottom of this,” that puts a stop to this. It stops the Thursday vote in the committee. It stops Mitch McConnell from ramming this vote through. All it takes is two Republican senators to come forward and say, “We need to know what happened here before this person is given a lifetime appointment to the Supreme Court of the United States.”

AMY GOODMAN: So, you already have a number of senators speaking. You have Corker, you have Flake, and then there’s Murkowski and Collins. There are already four Republicans who are wavering here.

IAN MILLHISER: They’re wavering. But what—we need more [than] wavering. I mean, what we need is definitive statements. If Jeff Flake wants to stop this, if he wants to show integrity—and Jeff Flake is retiring, so he has nothing to lose—the magic words that Jeff Flake needs to use is “I will vote no on Brett Kavanaugh if the Thursday vote is not canceled.” And until we hear those magic words from Jeff Flake, you know, he hasn’t said very much.

AMY GOODMAN: And, of course, Corker also is retiring.

IAN MILLHISER: Right. Corker is also retiring. And, you know, Susan Collins is the senator from a blue state. She’s the senator from Maine. She can run—even before this happened, she could run for re-election in 2020 as the senator who saved Roe v. Wade or as the senator who killed Roe v. Wade. Now she can be the senator who put someone who has a credible allegation of attempted rape on the Supreme Court, or she can be the person who said, “Stop.” And, you know, if I were—

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