Asking the right questions for a better-informed public
by Allan LEONARD
28 January 2020
Representing FactCheckNI and as part of a four-person panel, I was invited to give evidence to the UK House of Lords Select Committee on Democracy and Digital Technologies. Fellow witnesses were Ed Humpherson (Director General for Regulation, Office for Statistics Regulation (OSR)), Will Moy (Chief Executive, Full Fact), and Jenni Sargent (Managing Director, First Draft).
This was an extension of the committee’s previous call for written evidence, on the issue of “how representative democracy can be supported, rather than undermined, in a digital world”. The focus is on six key areas:
- transparency in political campaigns
- privacy and anonymity
- the effects of digital technologies on public discourse
- how technology can facilitate democracy
- the development of effective digital literacy
This session of oral evidence looked at how information providers ensure that information provided to the public, particularly during election campaigns, is reliable and accurate; how information is verified; what are the key challenges facing information providers; and how legislation in this area could help.
The session was live streamed to the public via a webcast, and the following is based on an uncorrected official record.
After introducing ourselves, Baroness McGregor-Smith asked us what effect misinformation — or information disorder — has had on public debate in the UK, our positive actions, and remaining challenges.
Jenni Sargent replied that anybody who wants to disrupt public discourse can utilise online spaces to shift the narrative, based on how they want people to perceive information. Her organisation, First Draft, is trying to raise awareness of such tactics. Ed Humpherson said that the velocity of bad information can drive out the good, and a role of the statistics authority is to provide a reliable, impartial evidence base. I emphasised the value of critical thinking and to have people think for themselves. Will Moy said that bad information can ruin lives — damaging people’s health, promoting hate, and hurting democracy. But not all bad information does this, he added; there is a spectrum of experiences and some are more consequential than others. To help tackle real harms from bad information, Moy argued that there are a lot of building blocks in place — such as a respected and trusted public service broadcaster, freedom of speech, maintaining standards in public life; the challenge is to move these into the world we live in now.
Baroness McGregor-Smith also asked all of us what we would do individually, personally, in fact checking a claim. Humpherson replied “going the extra click” to see what sits behind a claim; I replied that one of our research projects (Co-Inform) has the motto, “think, check, share”. Moy provided the three questions contained in Full Fact’s and FactCheckNI’s toolkit: (1) where has the claim come from? (2) what does the claim really mean? and (3) how does the claim make you feel? Likewise, Sargent said that she will check the motivation of the claim and then apply verification skills to track down the source.
Lord Lucas asked whether there is scope to have a curated set of uncontested information on national questions, to help focus debate. Moy answered “yes”, citing the House of Commons and House of Lords Libraries, as well as the Office of National Statistics. But, he added, the challenge is translating that quality of impartial research and analysis for a general audience. I gave the example of the Northern Ireland Statistics Research Agency (NISRA) curating its data products into themed presentations, such as on migration. Humpherson endorsed this NI: IN PROFILE product. He also informed the committee that at the OSR sees itself as serving a much bigger public debate, “which often requires a more accessible, coherent, and linked-up way of presenting information”. Sargent reminded everyone that when someone searches a topic online, they are not presented with any indicators of the credibility of the search results: “It’s an open goal for anyone looking to drive a different narrative.”
Baroness Morris queried whether we can really expect every member of the public to develop fact-checking skills and apply them with every claim they come across. Sargent’s response was that there are tactics being used by those purposefully spreading disinformation, and that platforms and publishers have a responsibility to provide indicators of credibility, like we see with a newsprint font of the colour of the Financial Times. I replied that a lot of this comes down to trust, “which is a difficult thing to achieve and standardise”. I also made a distinction between claims that are made in public and microtargeting. For claims made in public and broadcast publicly, media literacy, general awareness, and fact-checking organisations can respond very promptly. Resolving the issue of microtargeting political adverts, for example, education on its own is not going to resolve it; software solutions could play a role. Moy made a case for putting the topic in perspective; the goal should be to reduce harm from false and misleading information by taking proportionate steps. The challenge, he added, is to find the once sentence of advice that we could tell everyone to think about, like the public safety campaign, “stop, look, and listen”; it might be “take the next click”. Moy also complimented the coordinating role that Ofcom is attempting, particularly with its Making Sense of Media programme. Yet the UK Department for Education does not appear to be actively involved in such work, which Baroness McGregor-Smith noted and will feed back to the department, where she is a non-executive director.
Lord Holmes asked what are the characteristics of information that achieves public trust, and how can we ensure that the public can differentiate between legitimate and illegitimate sources of information. Humpherson replied that it is a mistake to regard statistics as just numbers: “They are numbers with a social life; they exist in context.” He explained the three pillars of trustworthiness, quality, and value that underpins his organisation’s work. Similarly, I explained the third-party verification of fact-checking organisations that adhere to a code of principles set forth by the International Fact-Checking Network at the Poynter Institute: “Trustworthiness is reflected in our commitment to non-partisanship and fairness, to transparency of sources of information, to transparency of funding and our organisational details.” Moy described trust as a collected set of experiences and can be easily lost. He remarked that about one in five of us generally trust politicians or journalists to tell the truth: “That does not mean that we think they lie all the time; we think they lie enough that it is not sensible to trust them.” Sargent went beyond institutional trust, observing a rise in the spreading of misinformation within closed trusted groups (where people feel safe with information that confirms their existing beliefs).
Lord Scriven continued on this point, asking for evidence that fact checking works in changing people’s minds from irrationality to a more rational view about what is true. Moy replied by referring to a joint statement between Full Fact, Africa Check, and Chequeado: “Fact checking doesn’t work (the way you think it does)”. He explained that most fact-checking work is upstream, asking people to correct the record and stop the spread of specific unsubstantiated claims, as well as looking at the causes of bad information and trying to tackle it:
“Fact checkers are not the answer to how to get everybody to believe things that are true. We are part of the answer to how you give people the opportunity to make up their own minds about what is true and what is not, and to how you challenge people in positions of power and responsibility, when they choose to mislead others or when they accidentally mislead others. The idea that there is anybody who could sit in some central position, bestow accurate information on the world and be gratefully thanked for it is borderline silly, to be honest … The accountability function is a crucial part of what we do,” Moy argued.
Baroness Kidron expressed her interest in the idea of the value chain of information, and wanted to know what set of principles could intermediaries in the chain adhere to that would help to drive a healthier relationship between verified producers and “hearers” of information. I answered with a description of fact checking as explanatory journalism, where the aim is to put claims and facts into a context. I also suggested that reporters and other outlets with editorial guidelines could include a duty of care, to cause no harm, in consideration of their selection and coverage of stories. Sargent responded with a challenge that many newsrooms face in competition for audience and attention, and the fact that anyone can put out their narrative via advertising on online platforms, sometimes without transparency observed in traditional media outlets: “I am always shocked by how the platforms do not refer to the news industry more frequently, to learn from what it has gone through in terms of how to report, such as whether to show the moment of death.” Here, Moy said that internet companies should provide proportionate responses to real harms, but he didn’t think that they are capable of defining where that line is without democratic oversight: “That is a decision that I would like to see taken with democratic accountability, not just in a corporate situation.”
Lord German asked how our individual organisations’ connections with government and/or technology companies bring credibility advantages and disadvantages. Moy replied that there is a chain of credibility in working with top-tier internet companies, from being able to provide evidence about how they behave and can be improved, how to communicate effectively in the online world, and in publishing transparency reports about its organisation’s work with them. Full Fact’s work with government gives it credibility in explaining how the policy environment affects the internet companies, and likewise with media organisations. There is a trust relationship among agencies such as the House of Commons Library, the ONS, public information bodies, universities, internet companies, and broadcasters and media outlets. Sargent enhanced this argument by saying that collaboration is the only way that we can bring in all these stakeholders, yet as no two governments, news organisations, or media landscapes are the same, principles and guidelines are always evolving. I added that FactCheckNI is part of a European Commission Horizon 2020 research project, Co-Inform, which is a partnership of universities and research institutions, with our participation as practitioners. My argument was that credibility comes from those of us fact checking organisations doing the work on the ground, while also drawing from the global fact-checking community and learning from what has been shown to work elsewhere.
Lord Puttnam asked us if Facebook’s partnership with fact-checking organisations works, and whether it should be emulated by other technology companies. Moy replied that the programme is a valuable measure, particularly in cases of tackling election interference, tackling false information in the aftermath of emergencies, including terrorist attacks, and tackling health misinformation. Sargent, like Moy, expressed a concern about whether the programme is scalable for the internet, and about the financial incentive to publish fact checks; she would like to see a similar effort about accurate reporting. I shared both concerns, and added one about reputational risk, where the wider public could misassociate a fact-checking organisation as not doing political fact checking (because Facebook does not apply treatment for political speech). Generally, FactCheckNI is content with its participation in the programme.
There was a pause after Lord Lucas asked us what was the one thing that Government could do to ensure better-informed public debate in the digital age. Moy replied, “It is the wrong question … There is a tendency to see this issue as a problem for which we are looking for a solution.” Rather, Moy suggested, this is a new area of policy that we will be debating for the next 30 years, discussing balances between free speech and harms: “The Government are making the mistake of thinking that they can create some kind of statutory duty of care, then outsource all those profound choices to a regulator…” Moy then applied a Swiss cheese model of accident prevention, where you can’t see through the block of cheese because the holes don’t line up. In the form of being well informed, many surprising steps need to happen: from asking smart questions, good research and evidence gathering, to communicating the information clearly, reaching large audiences who take it all in. Sargent provided some context, by saying that there may be an equivalent of COBRA for certain moments and that some journalists are exposed to more harassment, threats, and harm from the internet. So Moy’s proposal to the committee was to consider legislating little and often, updating legislation as our understanding grows. I suggested considering synergies among fact-checking organisations, universities, and agencies, in order to promote pathways of good information. Humpherson asked the committee to think about the Government as a provider of information: “Spend as much time thinking about what it means to inform as it means to misinform.”