December 21, 2016

2016 was fact-checking’s finest year [1]. No it wasn’t, it was the year of “post-truth” [2] — some preferred “post-fact” [3] — and fact-checking is a fool’s errand. The discussion about facts in journalism worldwide has rarely been as fractured and animated as it has been in 2016, so we collected 366 links, one for each day of the year, to try and make sense of what happened.

The state of play. The number of active fact-checking initiatives around the world grew [4] and grew [5] in 2016. A good part of these cluster in the USA, where local media has taken up fact-checking with gusto [6]. A first history of U.S. political fact-checking was published this year (check out the Q&A with its author) [7, 8].

Growth was recorded far beyond America’s borders. A Reuters Institute report [9] looked at the expansion of fact-checking in Europe (Spark notes version here) [10]. Fact-checking is also increasingly popular in Latin America; motivations include a lack of trust in politics and the media [11, 12]. In Africa, much of the growth has been spearheaded from one organization [13, 14], but you should keep an eye on these award winners [15].

For more overviews of fact-checking in specific countries and regions, check out articles about fact-checking in Australia [16, 17, 18], Brazil [19, 20], Ireland [21], Italy [22], Korea [23], Northern Ireland [24], the United Kingdom [25, 26, 27] and the United States [28, 29, 30, 31, 32].

This growth has led to increasing international collaboration among fact-checkers [33], who work following similar methods worldwide [34]. In June more than 100 fact-checkers from 41 countries convened in Buenos Aires [35] and announced a code of principles among other things [36-38]. Notwithstanding, fact-checking still faces many challenges [39].

For instance: do readers care?  An audience panel told NPR they really wanted fact-checking in election coverage [40]. The public radio network obliged and the audience turned up in droves [41]. Traffic boomed across fact-checking outlets during the U.S. presidential campaign [42] as it had also done during the Argentine election [43]. After the Brexit referendum, an online petition to create an independent office to monitor political campaigns and “restore truthful politics” collected 166,000 signatures [44].

Pollsters asked Americans a lot of questions about fact-checking this year; the answers were not always consistent. Eighty three percent of respondents told Pew fact-checking is a responsibility of the media [45]; a similar percentage said Trump and Clinton voters disagreed on basic facts [46]. Sixty percent told Monmouth that moderators should fact-check the presidential debates [47]. 36 percent told SurveyMonkey they consulted a fact-checking site during the first presidential debate [48].

Encouraging, right? Except a Rasmussen poll found that only 29 percent of voters trust media fact-checking [49]. A YouGov poll found that trust in fact-checking was high among Clinton voters, low among Trump voters [50]. A majority of the latter also told YouGov they would trust the President-elect over media fact-checking [51], which wasn’t true of Republican voters in 2015 [52].

Beyond traffic and polls, academic research was conducted on readers’ reactions to fact-checking. The “fact-checking treatment” increases accuracy in reader responses [53] — read about it on New York Magazine [54]. Another study found that “By and large, citizens heed factual information, even when such information challenges their partisan and ideological commitments” [55]. Read the Q&A with the authors [56] and an overview on The Upshot [57].

Still, recent psychological studies on misinformation seem to indicate people are incredibly gullible [58]. For one, the more we read something false like “a sari is a kilt” the likelier we are to think it may be true [59]. And a survey [60] found that even Clinton voters believed “fake news” that favored Donald Trump, possibly contradicting what we know about motivated reasoning [61, 62]. Getting the right person to do the fact-checking might help [63], but “people want their politicians to lie to them,” says Dan Ariely [64] and prefer an “appealing fib” over an “ugly truth” [65]. That could set off a vicious mechanism, if it is true that many small lies lead to big lies [66].

What about those on the receiving end of the fact-checking? Australian politicians mentioned fact-checking in Parliament 52 times in two years, according to a tally [67]. After being fact-checked, South Africa’s biggest tabloid corrected itself [68], as did the British Prime Minister [69], the Ukrainian Ministry for Economic Development [70], a former Irish Defence Minister [71] and a French Green party candidate [72]. Corrections and clarifications were also obtained after fact-checkers targeted questionable findings emerging from studies about health care [73].

Politicians sometimes encourage fact-checking from the media: An Irish Minister asked for his own words to be fact-checked [74]; upon resigning, Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi asked journalists to fight for the facts in this allegedly “post-truth” era [75]. Hillary Clinton called on fact-checkers to scrutinize her opponent’s words in the first and second presidential debate [76, 77]. Her opponent said he was “honored” fact-checkers found he was right during the third debate but also called fact-checkers “scum” so ¯_(ツ)_/¯ [78, 79]. Trump is the premise of many an article on the role of political fact-checking, he has been a blessing and a curse for the genre [80].

In France, the runner-up in the center-right presidential primaries lamented “this mania…for permanent fact-checking: True/False” [81]. But politicians can do more than disparage fact-checking: They can poison the well of statistics [82].

OK, it’s time to talk about “post-truth.” Questions about the future of facts were at first confined to The New Yorker book reviews and philosophers’ essays on the role of the internet [83, 84]. Slowly but surely headlines were popping up like mushrooms all over the world [85]. Finally, entire magazine covers were dedicated to “post-truth,” even if readers weren’t necessarily convinced [86, 87]. The term was elected German word of the year, and (mis)used by former Prime Ministers and EU leaders [88-90].

Skeptics, including this author, were outnumbered but not muted. American politics have not entered “a desolate, dusty, God-forsaken, Cormac-McCarthian, ‘post-fact’ landscape.” However [91]… To some, emotions trumping facts in politics does not seem like a particularly new phenomenon [92, 93, 94]. Facts sway some of the voters some of the time, and that’s just how politics work [95]. Others argue “the idea of a ‘post-truth society’ [is] elitist and obnoxious” or even a leftist conspiracy [96, 97].

Hell no: Trump is different and requires a completely new system [98]. After all, his surrogates have said with a straight face that there are no facts [99]. One of the authors of “The Party Decides” claims “We’ve lost the ability to have rational conversations based on facts” [100]. A philosophy instructor spelled out the problem: “If both sides don’t come to the table valuing facts, being persuaded by facts, how can we possibly come up with the best solutions to our complex problems?” [101]

Never quite using the term itself, Barack Obama hinted at it repeatedly in his last year in office. In March he was dismayed by “the sense that facts don’t matter, that they’re not relevant” [102] and noted that “you start seeing wild claims taken as truth” [103]. He spoke about the perils of facts being undermined or ignored in May at the White House Correspondents’ Dinner and again in October and November [104-106]. But is Obama partly to blame [107]?

For post-truth to mean anything, the term should mean more than just the triumph of lies [108]. Many definitions out there are not great [109, 110, 111, 112]. One of the better ones defines “post-truth” as a world in which “Trump’s assertion of the moment is the only thing that counts,” regardless of what he may have said in the past [113]. The attack isn’t so much on truth as it is on logic [114]. A scientist who doesn’t believe in facts [115].

How much of this is the media’s fault [116]? Conservative talk show host Charlie Sykes said that “at a certain point you wake up and you realize you’ve destroyed the credibility of any credible outlet” [117]. A French philosopher blamed post-truth on fact-checkers themselves [118]. Expecting the media to fix the problem alone at a time of extreme distrust is unrealistic [119]. Partisan news sources seem to make people more familiar with fact-checking but less receptive to it [120, 121].

Not all hope is lost, though: a poll commissioned by the British Institute for Government found that 83 percent of respondents wanted decisions to be made using objective evidence [122]. Now, if only we could agree on what that is.

From one buzzword to another. “Fake news,” especially as circulated on Facebook, was another element of this year’s fascination with the role of facts in the news business. To recap: Facebook was under fire for alleged bias in its “Trending” section so it reduced the role for humans — which meant very fake stories got through, more than once [123-127]. The problem didn’t go away, and according to BuzzFeed the reach of fabricated stories was higher than that of actual stories in the final months of the election [128, 129]. After the U.S. presidential election people got creative, attributing the election of Donald Trump to Facebook (which made some analysts LOL) [130, 131]. Still, inaccurate videos can go viral, like this one on taxation in France, whose correction did not [132]. Fake news took two of the top three spots on the podium for Facebook engagements in Italy ahead of a referendum vote [133, 134]. By this metric, they also outperformed real news in Zika coverage [135]. Fake news is a phenomenon that manifested itself in the PhilippinesSouth Africa and worldwide [136-138].

What should Facebook do? Suggestions have not been lacking [139]. Fighting fake news isn’t that hard, at least the worst stuff or is it [140-142]? Facebook should hire fact-checkers and improve the flagging mechanism so as to encourage users to report fake stories [143, 144]. Careful what you wish for [145]. Artificial intelligence won’t beat fake news [146]. What about lists of fake news sites or a crowdsourced list of suggestions [147, 148]? Maybe Facebook should be more like Wikipedia [149].

Facebook’s position on its role has evolved. In September Mark Zuckerberg thought Facebook “can help by doing a better job filtering out false information” [150]. After the election, he said that “the idea that fake news on Facebook…influenced the election in any way, I think is a pretty crazy idea” [151] and that 99 percent of content on the social network was authentic (how does he know?) [152]. This led a coalition of fact-checkers to write an open letter to Zuckerberg [153]. Two days later, the Facebook CEO announced a roadmap with concrete strategies his company would take [154]. A senior executive later acknowledged that Facebook was wrong not to have standards on fake news [155] and the social network tested out a solution for readers, probably inadvertently [156].

On December 15, Facebook ultimately announced that it would roll out a four-pronged mechanism to address fake news [157]. The strategy includes a prominent role for third-party fact-checkers, who can annotate posts the community is indicating are fake [158]. Facebook is only accepting fact-checking organizations that have subscribed to the code of principles of the International Fact-Checking Network, an alliance of fact-checkers hosted by Poynter. [159-161]. Is Facebook a media company now [162] or is it just offloading the problem on someone else without paying them [163, 164, 165]? Could the “disputed” badge backfire [166, 167]? Some were disappointed with Facebook’s choices, others called them sensibly cautious [168, 169].

Other platforms have their own version of this problem — although maybe not Snapchat [170]. “Technology disrupted the truth,” wrote The Guardian editor Katharine Viner [171]. Those cutesy accounts with millions of followers spewing “fun facts” could weaken our collective capacity to understand objective reality [172]. What are all those Twitter bots up to [173]? shutting down robbed Twitter users of one filter [174], especially useful during breaking news when old stories keep resurfacing as new [175]. Meanwhile, a study found rumors spread far faster than corrections on Twitter  and that “the prevalent tendency of users is to support every unverified rumour” – although the Twittersphere sometimes listens to reason [176, 177]. Amazon’s MTurk could become another tool of the fake news industry [178]. Google added a “Fact Check” tag in its news service but also got fooled into highlighting a bogus story on the U.S. election results [179, 180]. The search engine did move to ban fake news sites from using AdSense, which may make them a less appealing business proposition for the kids in Veles [181, 182] — even if they could just switch ad networks [183]. The financial incentive for successful fake news writers is strong [184, 185, 186, 187].

Glenn Greenwald is among the skeptics of the “fake news” narrative [188], particularly when it uses dubious sources to try and turn it into a vast Russian-led conspiracy [189]. “Making everyone who shares fake news part of a Russian conspiracy is not helpful” [190]. Chill out about the fake news problem already [191]. Seriously, fake news is less scary than what comes next [192]. The founder of Snopes argues that the bigger problem is bad news, not fake news [193]. All media outlets have published fake news [194], even the most reputable ones: remember WMDs [195]? There is a rich history of fake news masquerading as real news [196, 197]. Traffic objectives mean “newsroom pressure is letting fake stories on the web” [198] — and business incentives mean fake news make their way into sponsored links [199]. What can journalists do, besides blame Facebook [200]?

Not only has coverage sometimes overlooked glaring limitations of the media itself, defining “fake news” broadly risks backfiring: “This wide formulation of “fake news” will be applied back to the traditional news media, which does not yet understand how threatened its ability is to declare things true, even when they are” [201]. The fake news name-calling did indeed start shortly thereafter [202, 203, 204]. Calling too many things “fake news” makes it impossible to fix the problem [205].

That mainstream media outlets sometimes run false and inaccurate stories doesn’t negate the fact that there are people dedicated to doing that for a living. Several have spoken to the press about it [206, 207, 208, 209]. One writer behind fake Pokémon Go stories put it succinctly [210]: “Most of the news is fake anyway, so why not create a news website where people can actually write bullshit?” Speaking of which,  The Pope stepped in to tell the media, quite literally, to cut the crap [211].

Should legislation do something, especially if false rumors mean people risk getting hurt [212]? Perspectives from GermanyItaly, the U.K. and the United States [213-217]. Better get the media to clean up its own act, and avoid feeding the beast [218, 219]. Also, readers need to get better at spotting fake news by themselves [220, 221, 222, 223, 224, 225, 226]. If you’ve gotten lost by now: a good timeline to recap [227].

Perhaps the most important lesson of 2016 was: Fact-checking isn’t just for fact-checkers. It is for headline writers (otherwise this happens), TV hosts and all reporters [228-230]. The BBC should worry about fairness, not balance and improve how it reports statistics [231, 232].

Fact-checking should involve academics — or maybe not [233, 234]. Fact-checking must continue after campaigns are over [235]. One question that obsessed American media watchers in September was: Should debate moderators fact-check political candidates? The Yes brigade [236, 237, 238, 239]. The No brigade [240, 241, 242, 243]. More takes, if you can take ’em [244, 245, 246]. Here’s what happens when moderators do fact-check [247].

There is no Nobel Prize for fact-checking science, but maybe there should be [248]. Can humor help fact-checking convince people they’re wrong [249]? In fact, is fact-checking funny [250]?

Social media is useful during breaking news, especially terrorist attacks, but usually in sore need of fact-checking [251, 252253].

All that said, fact-checking is also for fact-checkers [254].

A look at formats fact-checkers used in 2016. What formats should fact-checkers use that go beyond text-heavy hyperlink rich articles? Articles aren’t the answer [255]. Ask your readers for claims to check, and let them track it [256]. Fact-checking on Snapchat [257]. Fact-checking and debunking using GIFs [258, 259]. A front page fact-checking ticker [260]. Fact-checking via text message, on the radio, in cartoon format and Twitter Moments [261-264]. Using the chyron for fact-checking: a big deal, but some guidelines should have applied [265, 266]. Fact-checking claims about Brexit in short videos [267]. Fact-checking on Alexa [268].

Annotation has been the future of fact-checking for a while [269] but NPR’s annotation of a live transcript brought that future closer [270]. Related: A Chrome widget puts fact checks over a debate livestream [271, 272]. Speaking of debates, an attractive visualization of the accuracy of the fact-checked claims [273] — and another one of Trump falsehoods [274].

Fact-checking the State of the Union in Mexico [275]. France’s Lying Oscars [276]. A German website mapped debunks of stories about refugees [277]. Tracking campaign promises in  Argentina, Australia, Brazil and Italy [278-281]. Fact-checking on the streets of Buenos AiresParis and Texas [282-285].

Media outlets have share and tweet buttons under every article — time to introduce a fact-check button [286]? Making fact checks embeddable makes the more shareable [287]. This widget by Serbian fact-checking website Istinomer lets readers flag content to fact-check anywhere on the web [288]. Wikipedia may be the next frontier for fact-checkers [289, 290]. Baloney sandwiches, both literal and figurative [291].

Automated fact-checking: bring out the robots. March saw the first conference on automating fact-checking [292] — read about it [293-295]. Using APIs to automate fact-checking: possible, albeit not imminent [296].

British fact-checking site Full Fact published a report outlining a roadmap for automated fact-checking and got $50,000 from Google to help turn the vision into reality [297, 298]. Also Google-supported: FactMata and the hoaxbusting projects Le Monde’s Décodeurs is working on [299, 300]. Facebook, for its part, patented a tool to automate removal of fake news [301].

An Australian journalist used “Claimbuster” to check the factiness of Australian Hansard [302]. The potential for automated fact-checking as seen on The Atlantic, CJR and New Statesman [303-305]. Failed attempts at automating fact-checking provide valuable lessons [306]. Will 2017 be the year of the fact-checking bot [307]?

Fact-checking fun. Don’t care much about politics? You can fact-check Oscar-nominated movies [308, 309] or the weather [310]. Libération checked the facts behind a tweet by iconic soccer player Zlatan Ibrahimovic [311]. Star astronaut Chris Hadfield fact-checked UberFacts on whether astronauts burp in space [312]. The year in silly fact-checked ads [313]. Harry Potter has some lessons on the importance fact-checking [314].

Fact-checking restaurants that claimed to bring food “from farm to table” [315]. Also on the food-checking beat: HealthNewsReview report on the alleged health benefits of pasta [316].

The level of discourse on the U.S. presidential campaign was so elevated in 2016 that it became politically relevant to fact-check whether hand size and penis size were related [317, 318, 319, 320]. Peter Griffin knew all there was to know about fact-checking [321]. Fact-checking “Donald, it’s good to be with you” [322, 323].

Cartoon strips about fact-checking on XKCD and Doonesbury — the latter no stranger to fact-checking [324-326]. Making fact-checking cartoons great again [327, 328, 329, 330, 331, 332]. Even Siri made a fact-checking joke in 2016 [333]. The Miami University student newspaper fact-checked a freshman roommate pitch on Facebook [334].

Tip sheets and training resources. Africa Check’s five step guide to fact-checking [335]. Tips from Les Observateurs and Google News Lab for image verification [336, 337]. A free online course by API and Poynter [338]. Plenty of resources by First Draft News starting from their social media verification guide [339, 340].

Seven things to consider before getting into fact-checking [341]. 5 tips for fact-checking claims about health [342]. Making your fact-checking better [343]. Learning from fact checkers’ failures [344]. Tips for fact-checking a debate, and for fact-checking live events [345, 346].

How to correct a lying politician on air (article and video) [347, 348]. Speaking of TV: the difficulties fact-checkers face going from online to on air [349]. Tips from TV producers who have run fact-checking segments [350, 351], plus a webinar on the same topic [352]. How to think about developing a promise tracker [353].

Misusing fact-checking. Don’t trust fact-checking with a partisan bent [354]. A non-exhaustive list of partisan initiatives includes a site denying the Armenian genocide, the site “Corbyn Facts” and RFE/RL’s foray into fact-checking, especially in light of its governance structure changes [355-358]. Fact-checking in political ads has political aims [359, 360]. Hyper-literal fact checks [361, 362] probably did the whole instrument more harm than good.

What is fact-checking “for” anyway? Fact-checkers should aim to become obsolete by empowering readers to do the work themselves [363]. Here are six metrics fact-checkers could use to start measuring their impact — and a Twitter chat on the same subject [364, 365]. Viralgranskaren looked at a world with and without fact-checking [366].

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Alexios Mantzarlis joined Poynter to lead the International Fact-Checking Network in September of 2015. In this capacity he writes about and advocates for fact-checking. He…
Alexios Mantzarlis

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