To get a sense of what the past couple of years have been like for fact-checkers, go no further than the dictionary.
In 2016, the Oxford English Dictionary (among others) proclaimed “post-truth” the word of the year. In 2017, the honor was bestowed by Collins on the term “fake news.”
There are excellent reasons to be skeptical about both the “Word of the Year” construct and the terms themselves. “Post-truth” defines a phenomenon as old as human nature, while “fake news” has been misused more often than it has been accurately deployed.
Still, misinformation has clearly been a hot topic over the past two years. So as we enter into the third year of a renewed focus on the role of facts in the online information ecosystem, what should we be on the lookout for? Here are seven predictions.
(As always, we promise to return to these at the end of the year and determine how outlandish the predictions turned out to be. Check out how well we did last year with our annotated 2017 predictions.)
1. Political consultants will increasingly help craft fake news campaigns.
Whether as a defensive strategy or an offensive one, we should expect campaigns to be dabbling more with disinformation. Already, one marketing company in Mexico claimed to have launched a fake news site on behalf of major national parties. More conscientious campaigners may not peddle fake news themselves but will want to counter what their opponents are publishing. Paul Horner-style fake news websites were easy enough to detect; more sophisticated operations eager to hide their traces may be far less so. This new challenge for fact-checkers will probably require enlisting investigative reporters capable of detecting the origin of the memes and stories long before the campaign’s final weeks.
2. Efforts to legislate against online misinformation will fail (at least in established democracies).
Various forms of regulation against elements of the “fake news” problem have been floated in countries from Ireland to Italy, the United States and the United Kingdom. The EU Commission is also studying the topic. A mixture of lobbying from the platforms and clamoring from free speech activists will mean such efforts won’t go far. In any case, “fake news” strictly defined is the modern equivalent of email spam, i.e. something that should be addressed with technical solutions. The broader challenge posed by hyper-partisan websites and misinformation doesn’t quite lend itself to legislation either. Instead, we’ll likely see more regulation on bots and hate speech, possible antitrust fines pushed by the EU’s competition czar Margrethe Vestager and a continued push to invest in digital literacy efforts. (In less liberal-minded countries, authoritarians may well tamp down on free speech further by brandishing it as “fake news,” a campaign that seems to have already started.)
3. We’ll get more real life data about the impact of fact-checking and fake news.
A whole lot of studies were published in 2017 on the impact of fact-checking — to the point that we’ve felt the need to launch a dedicated research database to keep track of the most interesting among them. The research contains several lessons and has been helpful to move the conversation beyond the idea that fact-checking “backfires.” However, it has predominantly been conducted in lab settings. In 2018 we should start seeing more real-life data from fact-checkers about their audiences (the IFCN is working on this, too). The game-changer would be if we got detailed data from Facebook on how its fake news flagging program has been going.
4. Fact-checkers will increasingly turn to combating misinformation on messaging apps like WhatsApp and WeChat.
In 2017, we saw an increased focus on the way that misinformation spreads on private messaging apps. These platforms present new challenges for fact-checkers because several of them — including WhatsApp — are encrypted, making it impossible to track virality. Fact-checkers will continue to develop innovative workarounds, such as imploring readers to send in hoaxes and then manually redistribute fact checks, but large-scale efforts will lag. This will lead to increasing frequency of misinformation in Latin America and Africa, particularly about public health issues and natural disasters, as well as on WeChat in China.
5. Collaborative fact-checking projects will boom.
Fact-checkers have long been a collaborative bunch. This tend is only going to grow. Expect more inter-newsroom fact-checking consortiums like Faktisk or Crosscheck.
6. The way Americans talk about media credibility and polarization will start to change, but it won’t solve everything.
In 2018, amid the media’s ongoing existential crises and allegations of being “fake news,” there will be more of a conscious effort to change the way newsmakers and consumers talk about journalistic credibility and partisanship. Journalists will start to organize around attacks on their craft by adopting the idea of a “reality-based press,” popularized by The Washington Post’s Margaret Sullivan, as well as moving away from using the term “fake news.” As conservative outlets such as The Weekly Standard increasingly publish fact checks and invest in fact-based reporting alongside outlets like The Washington Post and The New York Times, journalists will tone down their infighting in pursuit of better journalism.
But the move won’t solve everything. Publications plagued by years of cost-cutting will still put clicks above serious changes in frame, and audiences smoldering from the 2016 presidential election aftermath will still buy into sensationalist notions of a starkly partisan press that peddles fake news. Media attitudes take a long time to trickle down, but it may start in 2018.
7. Fact-checking will expand in sub-Saharan Africa.
The first ever African Fact-Checking Summit was held in Johannesburg last month under the auspices of the pioneering (and greatly-expanding) website Africa Check. We also watched closely a new project in Kenya and an aspiring one in Zimbabwe. This all seems to presage a regional fact-checking boom akin to the one experienced in Latin America a few years back.