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Guests are welcomed by people in Facebook shirts as they arrive at the Facebook Canadian Summit in Toronto on Wednesday, March 28, 2018.

Chris Donovan/The Canadian Press

Facebook Canada has hired independent fact-checkers to vet news content and blog postings on its platform as concerns continue to grow over the dissemination of false and misleading information on social media.

Still suffering from a controversy over the misuse of its users’ data, Facebook has called upon Agence France-Presse (AFP) to pro-actively evaluate news stories in Canada for accuracy and to respond to complaints from users about fake news. To be unveiled on Wednesday, the third-party fact checking will run at least until after the next federal election in Oct., 2019, while covering news on upcoming votes in Quebec, New Brunswick and Alberta.

The announcement comes amid an ongoing debate in Canadian politics about the quality of information disseminated on social-media platforms.

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Related: The long road to fixing Facebook

Facebook changing how it identifies ‘fake news’ stories

“The amount of deceptive, fake and misleading information and accounts targeting elected officials and diminishing the debate on social media platforms, particularly on Twitter, is increasingly concerning and, frankly unacceptable,” said Cameron Ahmad, a spokesman for Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.

Mr. Ahmad added “social media companies should immediately take action to fight back against those who deceive and manipulate for political gain.... Right now it remains clear that more action must be taken.”

A number of Liberals are angry over false information that has recently circulated on Twitter, including one allegation that Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s principal secretary, Gerald Butts, amassed a fortune of US$23-million while working for the Ontario and Canadian governments. In another case, a false account in the likeness of Environment Minister Catherine McKenna claimed she was against politicians paying for their own lunches.

At the same time, the Conservatives have come under fire for a series of attacks on social media against the Liberal government, some of which offered biased information according to a number of experts.

On Twitter on Tuesday, Conservative MP Michelle Rempel rejected accusations that her party was “spreading fake news because we question Liberal dogma.” Arguing that some journalists are partisan or angry at their shrinking influence, she said social media was the perfect tool for politicians who want to speak directly to voters.

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“I don’t always get it right, but I’m at least willing to challenge the Liberal status quo,” she said.

Twitter has announced its intention to clean up its site, acknowledging the need to “work with even more urgency” in the face of controversial postings. Last week, the platform acquired Smyte, a company that specializes in safety, spam and security issues on the internet, with Twitter now pledging to stop “abusive behavior before it impacts anyone’s experience.”

On Facebook, AFP fact-checkers will rate the accuracy of news stories that appear in English and French, defining them as being true, false or offering inaccurate or misleading information.

Facebook will add a warning to stories deemed misleading and offer other sources of information. False stories will be severely downgraded in the platform’s news feed, and users or sites that repeatedly post false news will face reduced distribution and advertising revenue.

In an interview, Facebook Canada’s head of public policy, Kevin Chan, said he could not divulge the value of the contract with AFP or the volume of stories that will be vetted for accuracy. A key element of the project, he said, will be gauging the extent of the problem with fake news in Canada.

“The AFP fact-checkers could find [misleading stories] by themselves. They will also rely on individuals, Canadians who are on Facebook, reporting these things to us. The third way, over time, will be [artificial intelligence] tools that will be able to proactively identify them,” he said.

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Christopher Waddell, a professor at Carleton University’s school of journalism, said the new fact-checking procedure represents a shift in thinking at Facebook, which long argued it could not be held responsible for the content on its platform.

“They’re edging closer to the line of acknowledging that yes, there is some truth to the sense that they are a media company, not a technology company,” he said.

AFP is one of the news agencies that is part of an international fact-checking network accredited by the Poynter Institute.

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