Overcoming closed borders: opening up fact-checking solutions Interview with Giovanni ZAGNI (Director, Pagella Politica) by Allan LEONARD 24 November 2020
“I haven’t seen some of my colleagues in six months,” remarked Giovanni Zagni, director of Pagella Politica, based in Milan. Conducting this interview via Zoom was a salutary reminder of unprecedented times in which we are living — never before have so many people globally have had to attempt to conduct their work, commerce, research, and collaboration remotely. Fact checkers may be more accustomed to applying their digital skills from anywhere — online access permitting — but remote camaraderie is a new phenomenon.
Telling stories with data: FactCheckNI session at Global Fact 7 by Allan LEONARD 29 June 2020
As part of the annual summit of the International Fact-Checking Network, FactCheckNI hosted “Telling Stories with Data” at Global Fact 7, an online session that explored the use of data in news and information presented to the public. I moderated the conversation between John Campbell (Business and Economics Editor at BBC Northern Ireland) and Niall O’Neill (statistician at the Northern Ireland Statistics and Research Agency (NISRA)). The session aimed to impart an appreciation of the importance of the integrity of trustworthy official data sources and the benefits that this has for fact-checking organisations, through good working relationships with statistics agencies.
It’s all about the test: Counting COVID-19 deaths by Allan LEONARD for FactCheckNI 14 April 2020
“The figures on deaths relate in almost all cases to patients who have died in hospital and who have tested positive for COVID-19. Slight differences in reporting in devolved administrations may mean that they include a small number of deaths outside hospital.” — Department of Health and Social Care (UK)
Lies and democracy: Who are the truth tellers? by Allan LEONARD for FactCheckNI 6 December 2019
As part of the annual general meeting of NICVA, the umbrella body of the voluntary and community sector in Northern Ireland, there was a panel discussion on the topics of truth, trust, and how everyone engages with a bombardment of information. Entitled, “Lies and Democracy: The Fight for the Truth”, BBC Radio Ulster presenter, Seamus McKee, moderated the discussion with panellists Amanda Ferguson, John Barry, and Orna Young.
Beyond fake news: Working collaboratively to address misinformation #NICSLive by Allan LEONARD for FactCheckNI 15 May 2019
FactCheckNI is becoming a regular feature of the annual NICS Live event, which brings together figures from across the Northern Ireland Civil Service as well as the wider public, private and voluntary sectors. This year was our third consecutive appearance, and I gave a presentation on “Beyond fake news: Working collaboratively to address misinformation”, discussing some key features of fact checking and the role that facts play in the political sphere of opinions and persuasion.
Stephen NOLAN: Enhancing democratic debate in the era of fake news? by Allan LEONARD 26 February 2019
As part of their engagement programme, Queen’s University Belfast hosted a lecture by radio and television personality, Stephen Nolan, who was introduced by Ryan Feeney. Much of Nolan’s lecture was an autobiography of how he has developed his career in journalism and working for the BBC. His views on the topics in the lecture title — “Enhancing the Democratic Debate in the Era of Fake News” — were teased out during the question and answer session.
Earning trust “story by story”: Can we believe the media? The role of journalism in the digital age by Allan LEONARD for FactCheckNI 4 October 2018
Ulster University — along with the UK press regulatory body, Impress, and the Media, Communication and Cultural Studies Association (MeCCSA) — jointly hosted a symposium event at its Belfast campus: “Can we believe the media? The role of journalism in the digital age”. Keynote speakers were Jonathan Heawood (Chief Executive Officer, Impress) and Peter Feeney (Press Ombudsman, Press Council of Ireland).
Ensuring trustworthiness, quality and value in all our work by Allan LEONARD for FactCheckNI 12 April 2018
The Northern Ireland Statistics and Research Agency (NISRA) hosted an information seminar at Belfast City Hall, for staff from government organisations in Northern Ireland who have responsibility for statistics in their work (creating and/or applying).
“The fightback begins in Northern Ireland!” says Byrnes The importance of journalism in an era of fake news #BMF2017 by Allan LEONARD for FactCheckNI 17 November 2017
As part of the Belfast Media Festival 2017, there was a moderated discussion on how ‘mainstream media’ is responding to the evermore prevalent environment of ‘fake news’, with Channel 4 Commissioning Editor, Siobhan Sinnerton, chairing the session with Dorothy Byrne (Head of News and Current Affairs) and presenter, Jon Snow.
Sinnerton began by asking what a challenge fake news is for all of us, this “flood of misinformation”. Snow replied that he didn’t really know what a definition of fake news is, because he has seen it all during his journalistic career, while Byrne asserted that the concept of fake news is a fake itself: “If it’s fake, it didn’t happen so it can’t be news.” She suggested that we replace ‘fake news’ with the word ‘rubbish’ and instead concentrate on the importance of journalism.
Next was how to answer an apparent conundrum of scolding social media platforms, namely Facebook and Twitter, for facilitating misinformation at such speed, yet legitimate media outlets using it to disseminate news. Snow replied that they need to recognise a responsibility of providing a “bedrock of dependent information”, yet he immediately mooted whether that should include Channel 4 and/or the Daily Mail, which he recognised was a value judgement. Byrne suggested a kite-mark for news providers that are deemed to be trustworthy sources.
As for whether and how social media providers should be regulated, Snow cited how media is regulated in the UK as a positive exemplar. Likewise, Byrne credited regulation with continued very high levels of trust amongst the British public with tv journalism (as surveyed annually by OFCOM).
Byrne said that it was time for journalists to all stand together to stand up for the value of journalism, with strong and powerful journalist organisations. Snow was sceptical, replying that journalists as a bred will not do that, “because we’re wrapped up with wanting to be a journalist”.
“So should journalists be on a war footing?” Sinnerton asked. Snow repeated the above riddle, whereby private citizens are engaged with social networks that connects people to one another, but with a downside that these networks serve as a medium for disseminating “dangerous stuff”: “How do you stop one yet allow people’s freedom?” Byrne remarked that it can depend upon which country you’re in, because in some places one can’t believe anything one reads, journalists get killed, “where Twitter is the most truthful place and governments will try to block it”.
Snow and Byrne both commented on their visits to schools. Snow said that the children he talks to are “switched on”; they know the upside and downside of social media. Byrne demanded any necessary change in the UK education system so that young people, from age four or five, learn how to spot fake news.
Earlier, Sinnerton played the following video about basic fact-checking:
Sinnerton opened up the discussion to the audience, where a member of the audience asked whether there should be more positive news (with Snow begging the question of what news is about). Alex Graham (Chair, Scott Trust) said that social media platforms need to be regulated supranationally, e.g. by the European Union. Someone else asked why it takes hundreds of people to die before people care, in order to try to prevent disasters such as the Grenfell fire. Snow explained some of this to the demise of local media, which historically serves such a role: “Social networks ought to be a means of highlighting such issues, but why it hasn’t is worth examining and learning from.”
I had the opportunity to introduce myself as editor of FactCheckNI, Northern Ireland’s first dedicated fact-checking service, and tried to add to two points raised in this discussion. As for journalists collaborating together, I cited CrossCheck, where 37 media organisations came together to jointly fact-check claims made during the 2017 French presidential election. In regards to kite-marking trustworthy sources of information, I explained how fact-checking projects work to a code of principles overseen by the International Fact-Checking Network, with compliance overseen by an independent third party, and that the audience should look for this badge if they are on a proclaimed fact-checking site.
Byrne acknowledged the CrossCheck project, which must have emboldened her zeal for standing up for the importance of journalism: “Yes, the fightback starts now, and Northern Ireland is where it begins!”
Mr Rinus Penninx (Professor of Ethnic Studies at University of Amsterdam) here spoke much of the framing of dialogue in society, and how facts are subordinate to such frames. He called for children to be taught more in schools about what happens in politics. Penninx criticised academics for not being more engaged in real world politics (i.e. going beyond theory to examining performance). Likewise, he said that politicians should have an interest in science; but both academia and politicians should remain independent of each other.
Mr Matjaz Gruden (Director of Policy Planning, Council of Europe) explored why some hang onto falsehoods, even after the facts have been presented to them. He suggested that grievances of non-belonging (alienation, disenchantment) presents opportunities for others to fill with beliefs. This underlined Penninx’s hypothesis of framing being more important than facts.
Ms Anna Krasteva (Professor of Political Sciences, New Bulgarian University) argued that the world of populist youth is not one of fake vs fact, but a selective use of facts and myths to bring a sense of cohesion amongst believers. She quoted Max Weber: facts and myths play the same role in community solidarity. Krasteva also made the argument that conspiracy theories provide a readier explanation for phenomena; “mediated, aestheticised, and glorified identities” are untouchable by facts; and individual identities can neither be verified nor falsified by facts. She depicted this as an illustration of a “David of Facts” vs “Goliath of Fake”.
Mr Tituts Corlatean (MP, Romania and MPA, Council of Europe) suggested using a local approach to combating fake news, with direct contact with people, asking them what they think about it and advising them how they can recognise it on social media. (Indeed, training in schools and local communities is a crucial dimension of our work at FactCheckNI.)
Mr Yuri Borgmann-Prebil (Policy Officer, DG Research and Innovation, European Commission) described his organisation’s research programmes. MYPLACE looked at young people and how they may look at radicalisation. Horizon 2020 consisted of three work programmes: exploring effects of inequalities among younger people; waning trust in public and private authorities; and identifying indicators and consequences of populism. He reminded the audience that the purpose of European Commission (EC) research is to provide evidence to inform (not determine) Directives and policy, and said that they would be exploring the effects of misinformation (fake news) in future programmes. (Coincidentally, shortly after the conference closure, the EC published a public consultation on the very topic.)
Ms Rosemary Bechler (Editor, OpenDemocracy) explained how it is impossible to have a debate in the United Kingdom about Brexit, because each side believes the other side is “completely deluded”. She said that British political and media culture is not conducive to a civic conversation; in parliament, politicians talk past each other while the media acts up the parties’ positions. But perhaps Bechler’s desire is not impossible, as she gave an example of a citizen’s assembly in Manchester, which included expert proponents on both sides and citizens were sincerely engaged, discussing the issues, and even some “enjoyed changing their mind”.
The first presentation was by Ms Marie Bohner, on the CrossCheck France project (which she served as coordinator). She described how CrossCheck France was launched in February 2017, to create a claim verification service for the French presidential campaign. The project had 37 partner news organisations, which investigated 64 claims and produced videos and infographics. Bohner defined the objectives of CrossCheck as going beyond a true-false dichotomy; they developed a typology of seven types of misinformation/disinformation:
She said that collaboration within the media sector for this project wasn’t obvious; some saw participation as a way of increasing competition, while others didn’t see the need for increased transparency. “But we saw it as something that was already online, these rumours, and that we needed to get out of our bubble,” Bohner explained, adding that local media partners increased trust with their audiences. An important lesson the project partners learned was that their reaching out to ordinary people on the ground — showing individuals how fact-checking works — resulted in direct engagement with those on both extreme sides of the political spectrum. Bohner saw this as a way of satisfying a public service mission of media organisations.
Mr Robert Holloway (Chair, Africa Check) described how Africa Check was established in 2012, as a UK-based non-profit organisation, but created a French-speaking subsidiary two years ago and are in the process of transitioning the business to Africa. Africa Check employ 15 staff full-time and operate in South Africa, Kenya, Nigeria, and Senegal. It has fact-checked over 1,500 claims; the major theme is public health, but it also covers migration, economy, and weapons.
Holloway said that one of the positive things it did was to help get rid of certain contagious diseases. From 1998–2001, Nigeria had a rate of about 50 new cases of polio. Then in 2002 there was a rumour that vaccines were part of a conspiracy to make women infertile, and politicians did nothing to dispel the rumour; new cases of polio increased to 1,600 in 2006. A public information campaign helped reduce that number, but Holloway made the point that more than 3,000 people got polio because of unfounded rumours that were not checked by the media.
So for Holloway, yes, fact-checking is worth the effort.
Mr Jamal Eddine Naji (Director General, Audiovisual Communication, Morocco) was the first discussant to respond to the presentations. He mooted the apparent demise of professional journalism in his country, while arguing that journalism training should begin at the age of five: “Workshops on journalism don’t mean anything; [training] should be done in the field, in companies or elsewhere.” He added that local media have an obligation to present accurate data, to encourage citizens to seek out even more accurate data.
Mr Gotson Pierre (Editor, AlterPresse, Haiti) acknowledge the role that social media plays in the spreading of misinformation, but reminded the audience of the power of radio stations, which can be more prevalent in developing countries. Pierre also remarked that traditions of authoritarian behaviour can embed distrust of official institutions producing data and information, retarding the development of a fact-checking process (where does one go to get reliable data?). This has a strong effect on the operations of professional media, especially as guarantors of viable information.
As rapporteur, my three takeaway points of this lab session were:
The innovative response of mainstream media to cooperate in addressing misinformation during an election campaign (but revert to competition thereafter?)
The responsibility of public service by fact-checkers and journalists, while appreciating the political-legal environments in which they operate (freedom of press; authoritarian reprisals)
The re-engagement between journalism and the public, which includes civic education and training programmes
The lab’s first presentation was about the non-government organisation, Union of Informed Citizens, based in Armenia. Its founder, Mr Daniel Ioannisyan, described its aims of using fact-checking journalism to increase public support for democratic values, human rights, freedom of expression, and political reforms. It seeks to promote facts for the wider population, disclose “the real face and narrative of propagandists and populists”, and build the capacity of free media.
The next presentation was a trio of speakers on the EUCHECK project. Ms Kate Shanahan (Head of Journalism and Communications, Dublin Institute of Technology) said that a real challenge for traditional media is for it to recognise that it is operating in a propaganda and disinformation-rich environment. She described EUCHECK’s purpose is to train a new generation to ensure that the public is well informed. Ms Carien Touwen (Senior Lecturer, Journalism Research, HU University of Applied Sciences, Utrecht) explained how EUCHECK consists of 15 journalism schools throughout Europe (within EJTA, which itself consists of 70 journalism schools in 28 countries). She defined the project’s desired outcomes for 2020 as being: (a) co-creation of fact-checking modules in journalism curricula in schools; and (b) establish fact-checking platforms at the national level. Touwen handed over the presentation to Georgia Oost, who explained how she and her classmates identified, researched, and published their fact-checked claim articles on a website, WTFact. The students also organised social media output, created databases, worked in a newsroom, visited in-person election events, and held a live fact-checking event:
Mr Roman Dobrokhotov is the Editor-in-Chief of The Insider, which is an investigative newspaper that seeks to provide its readers with information about the current political, economic, and social situation in Russia. His presentation was a harrowing perspective on how Russian-linked misinformation campaigns are having a direct impact on people’s lives; he made a correlation with military battle lines in Ukraine.
“Fake news has become part of information warfare,” Dobrokhotov said.
He explained that there is a marketplace for the production of fake news. In addition to those hired to type up malicious content for dissemination on social media channels, Doborkhotov told us how opportunistic individuals will hire themselves out as actors of a sort, willing to say anything to camera, for a price. His organisation’s project, Antifake, tracked down such a person, who readily admitted to telling fabricated stories about receiving abuse by migrants in her town.
Dobrokhotov said that people do like to know how and when they are being deceived. What he noticed about the EU referendum campaign was the UK mainstream media did not/could not counter the scale of misinformation (N.B. Shanahan’s remark above on the misinformation environment). Dobrokhotov repeated the need to reach young people with fact-checking campaigns.
The first discussant was Mr Simas Celutka (Director of European Security Programme, Vilnius Institute for Policy Analysis), who said that debunking stories is not enough, and that we need to “strike at the core” of the problem of misinformation, about the aims and targets of all of the fake news: “If we don’t believe in our own way of life, then the populists will become more influential.”
The next discussant was Mr Gunnar Grimsson (Co-founder of Citizens Foundation), who spoke about the challenges of making fact-checking projects sustainable. As he saw it, it is easier for small groups of people to work together on an issue, because you more readily trust those that you’re working with; new dynamics emerge when scaling up operations. Furthermore, what is missing in some projects is an element of fun in participation, of either enjoyment or some personal gain; not everyone is a fact-checking nerd!
Grimsson added his voice to those who say that critical thinking skills need to be taught early, and crucially, with the internet in mind, “because waiting until age 30 is too late”. He also highlighted the importance of measuring the impact of fact-checking projects.
In the subsequent Q&A session, unsurprisingly there were many remarks made about the methodology of Russia-linked misinformation campaigns. The moderators, Mr Erdogan Iscan and Mr Conor McArdle, did well to ensure that there were no accusations levied against the Russian government or permit any form of uncivil discourse. Lest one though Dobrokhotov less than patriotic, he himself stated: “I am here to defend Russia and the best way to do that is to combat fake news.”
Doborkhotov also remarked that what is at hand here is a contest between pluralism and relativism: “If we divide ourselves into separate echo chambers, democracy dies.”
“Fact-checking keeps growing!” Report from #GlobalFact4 by Allan LEONARD @FactCheckNI 9 July 2017
The fourth global conference of fact-checking projects took place at the Google Campus in Madrid, 5–7th July 2017, with 188 delegates representing 53 countries. Fact-checkers were joined by participants from the academic and technology sectors, which made for richer and more thought-provoking discussions.
Advanced Google techniques
We were welcomed by Millan Berzosa from Google News Lab, who educated us on some advanced techniques using their online tools, such as digging into Google Scholar, Google Books, Google Earth, and Google Translate (translate those televised protest posters for yourself!). For videos, you can analyse YouTube videos frame-by-frame (comma=back; period/full stop=forward), and there is a way to reverse video search as well as reverse video thumbnail search. All useful additions to a fact-checkers arsenal of verification tools.
‘Stitch and bitch’: Review of Code of Principles process
Other delegates attended classroom sessions on creating a database of fact-checked stories and on exercising best practices for fact-checking. I joined fellow signatories of the International Fact-Checking Network’s code of principles for a ‘stitch and bitch’ session about the verification process, which was more constructive than complaining — it may have been a hassle for us to compile the requisite information, but making it now easier for our audience to see this is of course for the better.
Using Facebook better
The classroom was turned over to learning good fact-checking impact metrics. While back in the auditorium, Edouard Braud from Facebook showed us how some of their tools could assist our efforts. These included a fake news reporting tool, a false news education campaign, a related articles feature within postings, and their false news detection programme. All are integrated into their Facebook Journalism Project, which Braud encouraged us to access. Yet I was unclear how our individual fact-checking projects could become an official Facebook media partner, in order to use some of the advanced Facebook search features demonstrated.
Mantzarlis began with a concise reflection of the world of fact-checking since the previous global conference, with a pointed remark that ‘post-truth’ is both “preposterous” and “lazy editorialising”. Instead, he argued that fact-checking is about providing the ground rules for democratic dialogue. But Mantzarlis did add a collective challenge, by saying that we should be measuring impact as much as we measure our audience.
Pastor got straight to her point: “All politicians and governments lie.” She added that while not every single politician may lie, all institutions of state will be found lying at some point. Pastor reminded me of a Spanish version of the BBC’s Jeremy Paxman, who is known for his scepticism when interviewing political representatives: “Why is this lying bastard lying to me?” This typical attitude found a receptive audience among fellow journalists in the room; there were no politicians present.
Adair, like Mantzarlis, looked back on the expansion of fact-checking, commenting that Global Fact 1, just three years ago, filled an ordinary classroom; we now needed an auditorium and a wide-angle lens for the group photo. “There’s one thing you can be sure of,” Adair told us, “fact-checking will keep growing!” He added that a new challenge is the emergence of governments and propaganda outfits pretending to also be fact-checkers.
Show and tell
The next session was a set of four ‘show and tell’ examples in the industry.
First up was Julien Pain (France Info), who described and showed a short video of him doing ‘vox-pop’-style interviews of individuals in the streets of Paris, about claims that have appeared on social media. Pain was motivated to do this in order to dialogue into this bubble, and he broadcasts his interviews on Facebook itself (as well as an edited piece for tv). “I now get insulted, which means I am reaching my audience!” Paid concluded.
Michelle Lee (Washington Post) explained how they track President Trump’s falsehoods, which started as a first-100-days project but demand made them to keep this ongoing. The relevant graphic is derived from a database of claims and analysis, which is available for public interaction.
Alberto Puoti (RAI) discussed a video clip he presented of former Italian prime minister, Matteo Renzi, being fact-checked on air, in person. Puoti summarised Renzi’s reaction into three tactics: (1) ridicule the fact-checker; (2) reformulate the statement; and (3) fact-check the fact-checkers. Puoti offered the following challenges to fact-checking on the tv format: (1) securing the guest’s attendance; (2) working out the plot of dialogue; (3) maintaining the relationship with the guest; and (4) the format of the presentation. Like previous speaker Ana Pastor, this reflects a traditional confrontational role of journalists; I wondered if RAI ever had a guest where the claim is demonstrated to be proven true.
Rebecca Iannucci (Duke Reporters’ Lab) took a trip nostalgic, in explaining how pop-up bubbles appearing in a 1990s tv music video programme (VH1 Pop-Up Video) has evolved into live fact-check pop-ups. She demonstrated this with examples from the 2016 US presidential debates, using manual interventions; her aspiration is to have voice recognition technology automatically create relevant pop-ups for any previously recorded video.
The keynote address was by Katherine Maher (Wikimedia Foundation), who suggested a Wikipedia way to fact-checking, ‘enlisting the public and avoiding trolls’. There is some scepticism among the fact-checking community of such an approach — even in our training we advise double-checking the source links in a Wikipedia article. Yet Maher made a strong defence of Wikipedia as a ‘knowledge ecosystem’ — a place where articles are a consensus of the truth of that topic, not an absolute truth. Referencing pundit Stephen Colbert’s term of ‘truthiness’, she said, “Truth changes. Information is volatile.”
Maher argued that their policies of neutrality, verifiability, transparency, and inclusivity is what makes Wikipedia work: “It’s a good thing that it works in practice, because it wouldn’t work in theory!” Her explanation reminded me of the self-regulation of popular Northern Ireland political blog site, Slugger O’Toole, where there is a critical mass of readers who will ensure nothing gets too out of hand: “We all have eyes on each other, not in an Orwellian sense, but to be accountable to each other.”
Furthermore, Maher argued that while facts matter, are they enough to have a conversation in order to achieve a consensus on what is true — that it is good information that gets us what we want.
This was an excellent segue for a following presentation by Briony Swire-Thompson (University of Western Australia), who mooted, “Why do people continue to believe in misinformation?” Swire presented evidence that showed that although individuals over time reverted towards their original incorrect belief about a particular claim, they did not revert completely; they stayed in the corrected-claim sphere:
This was a confirmation of previous speaker Thomas Wood’s (Ohio State University) research that utterly debunked the so-called ‘backfire effect’ of claim corrections. Meanwhile, Emeric Henry (Sciences Po) made an important point that the saliency of the claim topic being scrutinised will affect the adherence of post-correction affirmation.
All of these findings compelled me to present my as yet unproven hypothesis of a ‘hierarchy of truth’, with a base of data and words (“words alone don’t make a poem”), which beget facts, which beget information (“but this is where it gets slippery, as we get information from our own personal experiences”), which beget opinions (“which don’t need to be based on rationality”), which are all trumped by values and beliefs. As Professor Mari Fitzduff once told me, people rarely change their beliefs, but they may be motivated to change their behaviour. I want to explore this cognitive phenomenon.
The next session demonstrated collaborative fact-checking efforts around the world. Helje Solberg (Faktisk) explained how they assembled a ‘team of rivals’; Pauline Moullot (Libération) discussed her organisation’s participation with a Cross-Check project during the recent French presidential elections (and the benefit of access to audiences across competitors); Juan Estaban Lewin (La Silla Vacia) discussed how they reached and engaged audiences in the closed-platform network WhatsApp.
This question and answer session explored why and when fact-checking organisations should collaborate. For Solberg, the competition is not [other Norway media channels], but Facebook and Google. Moullot described how her organisation has collaborated internationally with other organisations, but where there is not the usual competition; she gave the example of Refugee Check (2015). The consensus among the panellists was that whether to collaborate or not depends upon the goal and whether there is a proposed project of mutual benefit; session moderator, Fergus Bell (Dig Deeper Media) likened this to the film, The Avengers!
Automated fact-checking tools
Four more panellists gave practical evidence of applying automated fact-checking tools in their work. Mevan Babakar (FullFact) showed both their live fact-checking tool and their monitoring tool (which reveals who is repeating inaccurate information); Babakar said that these tools are being used to build a body of evidence. Bill Adair (Duke Reporters’ Lab) introduced ‘ClaimBuster’, a set of code that can scan text — such as from the Congressional Record or Hansard or your own — and identify phrases for potential claim research; Adair nicknamed this the ‘robot intern’. Adrien Sénécat (Le Monde) presented the ‘Les Decodeurs’ programme that can categorise types of websites: (1) satire; (2) doubtful; (3) propaganda; and (4) reliable; further explanation is available in their Decodex Verification Guide. Finally, Pablo Martin Fernández (Chequeado) described the challenge of linguistics in the machine learning of language; Joe O’Leary (FullFact) replied with an interesting suggestion of using cases of how automated claim verification failed as a way of improving machine learning.
What do you want from IFCN?
I participated in a breakaway session on improving impact assessment, facilitated by Peter Cunliffe-Jones (Africa Check). We did not reach a consensus, which was not much improvement from a similar session at Global Fact 3 last year. This may be due to the fact that although fact-checking projects have an agreed methodology and sign up to a common code of principles, we do not work to a common objective. Some projects are embedded with mainstream media outlets and serve as ‘the fourth estate’, checking the authority of state institutions; other projects operate where the freedom of the press itself is not respected or even established; and meanwhile there is the debate on how far fact-checkers go from verification to presenting a consensus on ‘the truth’. As ever, context matters.
The rapporteurs from all the breakaway sessions presented an impressive set of ‘top ideas’ (or as Bill Adair put it, the longest to-do list for Alexios Mantzarlis!). My favourites were:
More (complimentary) cross-syndication of fact-check articles
A portal to share our published resources
Tools to identify claims; a hub of tools
Education smartphone app for journalists and students
Pre-publication screening tool for fact-check articles
A common curriculum for fact-checking education courses/training
Practical advice for fact-checking projects: fundraising, technology, business operations
Protecting the concept of fact-checking
Evaluating fact-checking education programmes
Sharing good practice (via videos and webinars)
Centralised list of unreliable websites
Share the Facts
Bill Adair (Duke Reporters’ Lab) gave a demonstration of the ‘Share the Facts’ widget, as an effective means of increasing exposure to your fact-check articles. An unintended consequence, he explained, of more organisations implementing this widget is the creation of a global database of these articles. Later, a participant asked a Google representative whether the creators of this database (we who publish the original articles) can have access to the database itself.
Fact-checking in the classroom
The final session of the day was on fact-checking in the classroom. Gabriela Jacomella (Factcheckers.it) described how she created a classroom package; I was intrigued by their Play/Decide card game, with its aim at increasing the participatory process. Cristina Tardáguila (Lupa) outlined her ‘products’: chargeable workshops lasting 2/4/6/8 hours, as well as a MOOC (massive online open course) lasting 4 weeks with 18 videos and weekly exercises and forum discussions. Matt Oxman (Informed Health Choices) explained his organisation’s analysis of an extensive project in Uganda, working with school children: “Adults have less time to learn, and they have to unlearn.” Hache Merpert (Chequeado) presented their ‘teens strategy’, which was a combination of the education system, informal learning (non-school), and social media; indeed, for Merpert the passion he experienced at weekend camps led to his belief that the way forward was to get young people who are passionate about politics to write better speeches using facts.
The subsequent audience discussion included what and who to teach (create a long list of concepts then ask educators to prioritise; 12–18 year olds are a good target for critical skill training); how to prevent recipients from not trusting any news (highlight reliable evidence; don’t publish only claims proven false); and the dimension of ethics (this is addressed within media literacy programmes, beyond fact-checking in the classroom).
Although I missed some of the morning sessions (blame a team bonding session with FullFact the night before!), I made it for Tom Rosenteil’s (American Press Institute) review and proposal for fact-checking — that we should spend more time on maximising network spread (as ‘fake news’ creators do).
Rosenteil argued that we need to move from a literal dimension of fact-checking (claim verification) to a contextual level of providing information — to go from claim-centric to issue-centric research. He suggested having ‘understanding an issue’ as the atomic unit of a fact-check article. (This reminded me of Maher’s (Wikimedia Foundation) presentation and her framework of a crowdsourced ‘consensus of truth’.)
Rosenteil also suggested that fact-checkers work more with local communities, in order to identify and prioritise issues of interest, rather than react to discourse agendas set by politicians. Phoebe Arnold (FullFact) provided an example via a freshly posted tweet, visually mapping out a contemporary discussion on social care. Likewise, at FactCheckNI our primary stakeholders are voluntary and community sector organisations, reflecting the values of our grantor, Building Change Trust. Bill Adair (Duke Reporters’ Lab) summed Rosenteil’s presentation with a complimentary remark about this two-prong goal strategy: (1) better-informed citizens make better decisions; and (2) keeping political representatives accountable.
Claire Wardle (First Draft News) began the discussion by announcing that ‘fake news’ is a swear word, forbidding the panellists from uttering the phrase (more familiar swear words were then heard!). David Mikkelson (Snopes.com) said that a drawback of a non-journalist approach to fact-checking is that it is reactive and can’t keep up with the proliferation of ‘non-fact-checked news’ (avoiding the swear word); he suggested being more proactive and write up longer articles, in order to get more good information in front of eyes (perhaps akin to public service announcements?) Clara Jiménez (Maldita.es (El Objetivo)) explained how they “clean the shit off the streets” by engaging with users in their platforms, such as Whatsapp chains and Facebook walls; this led to users themselves correcting false claims of others and a subsequent forum to assist and support such users. Mehmet Atakan Foça (Teyit.org) described fact-checking as the antidote, “but we need to do more teaching for people to do it themselves”.
The subsequent question and answer session focussed on a Venn diagram by Mantzarlis, between spheres of ‘debunking’ and ‘verification’. Wardle asked for a better term for the overlapping sphere; someone suggested ‘truth warriors’. Another suggested that the sphere encompassing everything was simply called ‘journalism’.
PS. Post-conference I read an article the offers an acceptable alternative phrase to ‘fake news’: Junk News.
Aine Kerr (The Journalism Project, Facebook) explained how Facebook’s mission includes creating ‘informed communities’, where it wanted to “amplify the good and mitigate the bad”. She then reviewed several tools put forward to achieve this, including fake news education, ‘Perspectives’, and ‘Related Articles’.
Philippe Colombet (Google) began by suggesting that “building a more informed world takes journalists and technologists working together” — that this has been the case in the past and will remain so. He reviewed tools of the Google News Lab: trust and verification; data journalism; immersive storytelling; and inclusive media.
Mantzarlis asked the speakers what they saw as particularly challenging for the next two to five years. Colombet replied, “Defending the open web.” Indeed, as both Facebook and Google are providing tools to fact-check claims found and propagated on the open internet, a significant threat remains on closed platforms, such as Whatsapp and Snapchat. Meanwhile, Kerr appeared receptive to the audience request for complimentary credit for their ‘Boost’ advertising scheme, such as the Google AdWords perk that non-profits organisations enjoy.
Aaron Sharockman (PolitiFact) should win a prize for presenting a slide with his own authored quotation! “You cannot begin to charge for something until you know what it actually costs.” His abiding message was: “Fact-checking is hip. Your work has value.” Sharockman described PolitiFact’s membership scheme, which emphasises access and unique experiences over handouts like stickers and mugs. A final tip when recruiting supporters was to ask them why they are joining — you learn their motivation, which can help developing that donor relationship.
I was good taking notes through most of the sessions, but as Alexios Mantzarlis began his speech I became mesmerised by the power of his words. He made a formidable defence of the crucial importance of the project work of everyone in the room, acknowledged by sincere collaboration with major platform providers and reflected by the geography and reach of our individual organisations:
“In the past three days I have been reminded of the particular combination of self-criticism, dedication, curiosity and commitment that make up your average fact-checker. I am proud of this community. We will falter and we will fail, but I know we will keep on asking the one question that guides our work: Where are the facts?” our friend and comrade Alexios finished.
This message was underlined by Bill Adair in his own remarks, who told us that he gets emotional when he thinks of the inspiration that our work provides. Adair gave thanks to Mantzarlis, who justly deserved the standing ovation.
I came to Global Fact 4 to see known colleagues and with the hope of meeting new ones with mutual interests. I did. My objectives of discovering potential lines of collaboration were facilitated by the speed-meeting and breakaway sessions, with follow-up conversations during the breaks and evening dinners and receptions. There was plenty of flexibility in the agenda to seek one’s interests.
Thought nourishment was abundant. Mantzarlis could not have done better in the all-star line-up of guest speakers and panellists. Every single one was interesting to listen to and learn from. I have many notes annotated with follow-up arrows.
One concluding thought of mine is that there is not a singular context of fact-checking — country and cultural context matters. But as each of our fact-checking projects wages a campaign for truth, we can continue to learn from our successes as well as our failures (so we can be evermore effective).
As Bill Adair said in a presentation he gave as a guest of ours in Belfast, we do not live in an age of post-truth; we live in the age of the fact-checker.
With the International Fact-Checking Network providing peer-to-peer support as well as moral and professional guidance through its code of practice, may we ensure that this motto endures.