Earlier this week, nine fact-checking websites joined forces to fact-check the statements made by world leaders during the G20 summit in Australia. Glenn Kessler wrote about the results in The Washington Post. I coordinated this first factcheckathon with Cristina Tardàguila from O Globo and took home three important lessons.
- Global fact-checking experiments can yield useful results for comparative politics
Our fact-checking network caught three of the eight world leaders we were monitoring saying essentially the same thing: Ahmet Davutoglu of Turkey, Barack Obama of the USA and Matteo Renzi of Italy all said something along the lines of “large amounts of jobs were created under my government” – and then proceeded to inflate their records. What was interesting was not so much that politicians chose to dabble with figures, but that they did so in such a similar manner. While the rhetoric and imagery deployed by politicians may vary greatly across countries, facts are facts everywhere.
A fact-driven analysis of speeches made by global leaders in the same forum opens up new avenues to compare political discourse internationally. Do elected politicians fiddle with facts in ways different from non-elected ones? Are there relevant cultural differences? This basic experiment produced a few valuable insights; a more rigorous one could provide a unique perspective by which to analyse international political discourse.
- The fact-checking whole can be greater than the sum of its parts
The factcheckathon was a small, if practical, output of a larger phenomenon. Independent fact-checking is growing across the globe. The nascent movement – largely inspired by Factcheck.org and PolitiFact, and energetically led by the former’s creator Bill Adair – met for its first “global summit” in London this June. But the fact-checking movement needs to grow much bigger, and making that happen will require innovations. Fortunately, greater collaboration should catalyse this innovation process.
This was clear in a recent fact-checking conference in Buenos Aires, where I saw some impressive efforts in data visualization, and the open-source “DatoChq” platform the Argentinian site Chequeado has built to receive datasets live via Twitter. At Pagella Politica, the fact-checking site I edit, we are developing a “fact-checkers’ Google” aimed at giving citizens structured and user-friendly access to certified data. Computer scientists and journalism professors from Duke, Stanford and the University of Texas at Arlington are looking at ways to automatize certain steps of fact-checking. These experiments may not yield revolutions; but every day fact-checkers sift through an ocean of data with a teaspoon – and the ocean is only getting larger. Given fact-checkers’ shared methodologies, a breakthrough in one country would be rapidly transferrable.
A lot of work remains to be done. This article published recently by The Guardianhas been haunting me. It shows the distance – often enormous – between public perception and reality on key indicators such as the unemployment level or the immigrant population. Factcheckathons and other efforts aimed at sharing fact-checks internationally can have an impact in defusing stereotypes across countries.
- Facts can be fun
My colleague Peter Cunliffe-Jones of Africa Check has quipped that a world meeting of fact-checkers sounds as riveting as an International Congress of Actuaries. So fact-checking doesn’t set the heart racing; but it doesn’t need to be dull either.
Pagella Politica submitted two fact-checks to the G20 factcheckathon. The first one concerned the jobs created during Prime Minister Renzi’s government. The second one verified Mr Renzi’s claims that there were more Sim cards than humans worldwide; and more kangaroos than humans in Australia. While everyone (half-heartedly) recognized the greater relevance of the first, I could see the joy with which colleagues from the US, Brazil and elsewhere lapped up the second one (you can read about it in Italian here).
This is not meant to showcase my Prime Minister’s penchant for cutesy comparisons. It is supposed to show that facts can be fun. What is more, they translate well. There is space for more fact-driven analysis of international summits, and this week has shown that fact-checking websites are up for the challenge.
The experiment was not perfect. For one, our results came out more than 48 hours after the summit was over; that is eons in the current live-news cycle. Moreover, our sample of fact-checkable statements was quite small. Nevertheless, a rough template was set for a more structured experiment in the future. Watch this space.