Are Facebook's independent fact-checking partners funded by vaccine makers? No, that's not true. While one of the 10 U.S. Facebook fact checkers discloses that one of its 2021 grants comes from a foundation whose stock-holdings include vaccine-maker Johnson & Johnson, vaccine makers do not fund fact checkers and have no control over fact checkers' writings. The grant in question, from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, was the third-smallest FactCheck.org got for 2021. The vaccine-maker stock is 1/6th of the portfolio of that foundation. Some videos in which the claim is made makes it sound like there's only one fact-checking agency when, there are dozens worldwide. Lead Stories' review of the publicly available financial disclosures of all 10 U.S. Facebook fact checkers found no direct funding by vaccine-makers. Lead Stories' analysis of the claim is in keeping with the Society of Professional Journalists' code of ethics, which calls journalists to be accountable, responding to questions about fairness and transparent about possible conflicts of interest.
The claims appeared in multiple social media accounts, including an April 30, 2021, Facebook video posted by RT.com, the Russian government-owned content distributor. Under the title "Questionable Impartiality?" It opened:
It seems Facebook's independent fact checker may not be so independent after all
This is what the video looked like on YouTube at the time this was written:
Most of the social media posts repeating the claim are woven around tweets and remarks by Rep. Thomas Massie, a Kentucky Republican who opposes vaccine mandates. Explaining how one stock in the portfolio of one funder doesn't drive decision-making, FactCheck.org Director Eugene Kiely responded, writing:
... the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation -- as is the case with all of our funders -- has no control over our editorial content. Period. Full stop. ... Since our founding in 2003, FactCheck.org's mission has been to apply the best practices of both journalism and scholarship, and to increase public knowledge and understanding of public policy issues. We accept funding from organizations that recognize the importance of that mission and our editorial independence.
FactCheck.org is only of 10 fact check agencies working for Facebook
Like Lead Stories, FactCheck.org is one of 10 organizations that carry out fact checking in the U.S. through Facebook's Third-Party Fact-Checking Program.
False Claim: Facebook fact checkers are funded by a vaccine maker
Direct funding would be a thornier independence question, if that were the case, but it's not. There is no publicly available evidence to support assertions made in this video and others that a vaccine maker funds fact checkers.
- The funding to which Rep. Massie referred is a grant to Factcheck.org from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, a public health-focused charity created in 1972 from the estate of the depression-era president of Johnson & Johnson;
- Stock in vaccine-maker Johnson & Johnson is but 16% of the Johnson Foundation's assets, according to its audited financial reports;
- The Johnson Foundation grant is less than 10% of FactCheck.org's budget, according to its online funding report.
(Source: FactCheck.org screenshot taken Wed Oct 13 at 22:28:00 2021 UTC)
Fact checkers in Facebook's program report no direct funding from vaccine-makers
Facebook requires its 10 fact checking partners to be audited and certified compliant with the standards of the International Fact Checking Network, which each year checks, neutrality, accountability and openness about methods and funding sources before granting certification. Here are the publicly available facts on each of the 10 fact check agencies:
- Lead Stories, which has been reported to write, in some months, more fact checks than all others combined, does not rely on grants or advertising revenue, instead operating on contracts and fees, mostly from Facebook, TikTok and clients who pay to use Lead Stories' proprietary virality monitor: Trendolizer™. We have no direct or indirect revenue from vaccine makers.
- FactCheck.org, reviewed extensively above in this fact check, is based at the University of Pennsylvania. In 2021 it reported funding provided by individual donors, Facebook, The Annenberg Foundation, Google and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.
- Politifact.org is owned and operated by The Poynter Institute for Media Studies, a nonprofit that lists the following major funders: Charles Koch Institute; Craig Newmark Philanthropies; Gannett Foundation; Institute for War and Peace Reporting; John S. and James L. Knight Foundation; Lumina Foundation; John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation; Newton & Rochelle Becker Charitable Trust; Rays Baseball Foundation; Robert R. McCormick Foundation; TEGNA Foundation; The Washington Post.
- CheckYourFact.org is a for-profit subsidiary of The Daily Caller, Inc., whose majority owner is co-founder and publisher Neil Patel. CheckYourFact reports its operations budget is part of The Daily Caller's general news budget and advertising revenue.
- Reuters Fact Check is owned and operated by Thomson Reuters, a New York Stock Exchange-listed corporation with $5.9 billion in revenues in 2020, mostly from subscriptions to Reuters' news services and specialty information products. About 66% of Thompson Reuters' stock is owned by The Woodbridge Company, a Canadian holding company controlled by the family of the late Roy Thomson. None of Thomson Reuters' board members are affiliated with pharmaceutical companies.
- AP Fact Check is a service of The Associated Press, a 170-year-old nonprofit global news cooperative with 56 Pulitzer Prizes whose members are newspapers and broadcasters. The AP is funded by fees paid for its news services, about $490 million in 2020, according to Dun & Bradstreet.
- USA Today Fact Check is a service of the USA Today network of newsrooms, owned by Gannett, a publicly traded media company with 2020 revenues of $3,405,670,000, mostly from subscriptions and advertising, which includes advertising purchased by pharmaceutical companies. USA Today Fact Check reports it is partially funded by a grant from Facebook. Gannett has also been sued for libel by Vivera Pharmaceuticals, a fact that does not support the claim Facebook's fact checkers are in thrall to the vaccine industry.
- AFP Fact Check is operated by Agence France-Presse, the news agency founded in 1835 and partially funded and owned by the French government. AFP's revenues from subscribers and content licensing were $192.9 million in 2020, with the French government providing $133.9 million of that. AFP Fact Check reports it receives direct funding through Facebook's third-party fact checking program.
- The Dispatch Fact Check is the fact-checking service of The Dispatch a majority-employee-owned company that was the first media company on Substack, a platform established to facilitate subscriber revenue for writers and other content makers. Audited financials are not easily available, but Dispatch told Nieman Reports it does not sell ads and now has 10,000 subscribers paying $100 per month, which would be $12 million in annual revenue.
- Science Feedback is a not-for-profit, partially volunteer organization that publishes fact checks, but also gives journalists feedback on science reporting. It owns a subsidiary (SciVerify) that partners with Facebook and TikTok, which pay for fact checking services. Science Feedback reports no vaccine makers in its running list of those who have donated since 2015.
(Editors' Note: Facebook is a client of Lead Stories, which is a third-party fact checker for the social media platform. On our About page, you will find the following information:
Since February 2019 we are actively part of Facebook's partnership with third party fact checkers. Under the terms of this partnership we get access to listings of content that has been flagged as potentially false by Facebook's systems or its users and we can decide independently if we want to fact check it or not. In addition to this we can enter our fact checks into a tool provided by Facebook and Facebook then uses our data to help slow down the spread of false information on its platform. Facebook pays us to perform this service for them but they have no say or influence over what we fact check or what our conclusions are, nor do they want to.)
(Editors' Note: TikTok is a client of Lead Stories. On our About us page, you will find the following information: "Since April 2020 we also provide fact checking related advice and services to ByteDance, the company running TikTok.")