The number of fact-checking projects around the world is growing, but not every effort has been universally welcomed. This was the case with Russia Today’s FakeCheck project, launched in mid-March and met with sarcasm by some in the West.
Russia Today itself has been accused of spreading misinformation, a position the outlet vigorously denies. RT’s fact-checking initiative was launched to "debunk fakes that are extensively distributed across the mainstream media."
Now four months old, can RT’s FakeCheck be taken seriously? In order to answer that question, we looked at the selection, sourcing and conclusions of the articles published by the initiative in a basic content analysis.
FakeCheck was launched in mid-March, yet at the time this article was published there were only 16 stories on the website — a markedly lower publication rate than most established fact-checkers.
"FakeCheck is not trying to produce as many stories as possible," said Andrey Kiyashko, the deputy head of news at RT who is responsible for FakeCheck. "Our goal is [a] thorough and thoughtful, yet easily digestible, approach to widely disseminated stories."
Kiyashko disputed public accusations that RT itself spreads fake news.
"What’s remarkable about all the shouting about RT and fake news, is that it comes with zero evidence, zero examples. The Macron campaign in France was practically built on these accusations, and yet, despite a multitude of requests, has failed to provide a single example of RT’s supposed ‘fake news’ about the now-President."
RT’s approach is different, Kiyashko said. Unlike its critics, he said, FakeCheck doesn’t accuse other outlets of being fake news peddlers.
"'Fake news' has become a buzzword, a shorthand for dismissing any inconvenient fact or point of view one might dislike. That’s why, on FakeCheck, you won’t find proclamations like ‘this outlet is fake news!'"
(FakeCheck has flirted with this approach, saying of The Washington Post that "the outlet has since been widely criticized for putting out 'fake news.'")
One criticism aimed at RT’s FakeCheck is its choice of ideologically convenient material.
"It is supposed to be a platform for any fact check, but no surprise that all the examples debunk Western media," said Anna Kachkaeva, a professor at the Higher School of Economics in Moscow.
Our content analysis shows that exactly half — 8 out of 16 of its articles — deal directly with Russia’s image abroad or its foreign policy. The other articles touch on Russia Today itself, Trump and Syria.
But is selection bias a sin if the fact-checking is done correctly? Nonpartisanship is a core principle of the (Poynter-hosted) International Fact-Checking Network, but selection is not a black-and-white matter.
"No fact-checking organization can possibly check every claim that every politician makes, so they need to decide what to check — not focusing unduly on one side or another in any debate but making a fair choice," said Peter Cunliffe-Jones, founder of the fact-checking site Africa Check and chair of the International Fact-Checking Network’s interim board.
Russia Today chooses "stories that are important to address, that have not been critically assessed by other fact-checkers and that resonate with a broad audience," Kiyashko said in response to a question about selection bias.
Outside of Russia, the Ukrainian project Stop Fake describes itself as an "an information hub where we examine and analyze all aspects of Kremlin propaganda." Voice of America, a media outlet funded by the U.S. federal government, has launched Polygraph, a service dedicated to fact-checking figures in or close to the Russian regime.
Nonpartisan selection "does not necessarily mean providing equal numbers of fact checks for claims by different sides," said Cunliffe-Jones. "Rather, it means calculating both the reach, or audience, of the claim and the impact on society it would have if the claim is not checked."
Kiyashko disputes the premise that RT is selective when choosing claims to check.
"Russia happens to be a very popular topic in the global media at the moment," he said. "The mainstream media finds the way to link Russia to practically every story happening in the world, which is why it might seem that every story we tackle is linked to Russia."
Moreover, FakeCheck is filling a gap that other fact-checking efforts aren’t addressing, Kiyashko said.
"We do see a remarkable lack of effort on behalf of other media or fact-checking projects in addressing the sometimes-blatant disinformation about Russia that has permeated the news," he said. "Ironically, it is often the outlets that are hyper-vigilant about exposing fakes on virtually any other subject that are the ones promoting fakes – or simply just failing to do basic fact-checking – about Russia."
Self-interested selection bias notwithstanding, should we give FakeCheck credit for debunking its part of the fake news pie? Or should the initiative be considered comparable to Turkey’s fake fact-checkers which actively peddle misinformation?
For one, the fact checks published by RT usually result in conclusions that align with Russia’s agenda. Russian meddling in foreign lands is debunked; the temper of Russian soccer fans is defended; the plight of Syrian civilians is discounted. And so on.
"Any 'fact-checking' that is done by partisan organisations, whether [by] political parties deploying 'fact-checkers' to make a case or partisan state-backed media doing the same," Cunliffe-Jones said, “is not fact-checking in the real sense of the term.”
This kind of partisanship in fact-checking can end up "debunking the debunkers" and increase distrust in news as a whole, Kachkaeva said.
From our analysis of every item published on FakeCheck thus far, we found that the project mixes some legitimate debunks with other scantily sourced or dubiously framed "fact checks." A similar conclusion was reached a few months ago by the Atlantic Council's Digital Forensic Research Lab on a smaller sample of stories.
For instance: FakeCheck pointed at actual faults in reporting about Russia by The Washington Post and CNN. These had been already corrected by the time FakeCheck covered them but are legitimate subjects of fact-checking.
On the other hand, videos from residents of Aleppo saying their final goodbyes were summarily dismissed because some were shared by anti-Assad activists — not because of any doubts about the veracity of the images. Another article about The White Helmets, a Syrian NGO, raises concerns about the organization without actually fact-checking a specific claim.
Rumors about alleged Russian meddling in the Maltese elections were addressed by referring to the Russian Embassy’s statement on the matter. Allegations that Wikileaks had ties to Russia were "debunked" by pointing to a quote by Julian Assange. In both these case the evidence comes from self-interested sources.
FakeCheck’s selection bias is therefore not its biggest sin. The bigger problem is that it mixes dubious fact checks among the legitimate ones, leading to unproven or poorly sourced conclusions.
"Alternative, partisan 'fact-checking' is incredibly damaging for society" said Cunliffe-Jones, "as it further undermines public trust in the reliability of all information. And agreement on what is reliable information is something we all need if we are to make our choices on anything other than gut instinct."