January 12, 2017

Fact-checkers had a big year in 2016; will 2017 prove as eventful?

Below are seven predictions of what the year ahead holds in store for fact-checking. As with the 2016 predictions, I promise to return to these when the year is over and evaluate how they fared. (You can check out last year’s annotated predictions here).

1. Fact-checkers will seek lessons from cognitive science

Late last year, it seemed like everyone in the media industry realized that confirmation bias and motivated reasoning were bad news for fact-checking. Or, as one MIT marketing professor put it on Twitter:

As more studies are published on how readers absorb fact-checking (not all of them say what you think), fact-checkers will adapt their methodologies and formats to try and reduce automatic, partisan-motivated, rejection of the facts. In a less optimistic scenario, fact-checkers talk about this at length but don’t change very much.

2. Fact-checking in the U.S. will retrench, but less so than in past cycles

Generally speaking, new fact-checking initiatives tend to launch ahead of big elections (Factcheck.org started in 2003, PolitiFact and The Washington Post’s Fact Checker in 2007). This meant that last year there were almost 50 fact-checking initiatives operating across the United States. Conversely — and perversely: As Knight Professor Bill Adair noted in November, “politicians don’t stop lying on Election Day” — the end of a campaign cycle leads to fact-checking initiatives being mothballed. This seasonal approach to fact-checking will likely be confirmed this year, with one such site gutted already.

Still, 2017 may buck this trend a little. Trump’s particular relationship with evidence and Facebook’s decision to allow third-party fact-checkers influence over News Feed will likely make it easier to make the case for continued operations to editors and funders.

3. Large democracies will see a growth in new fact-checking initiatives

Ironically, all these “post-truth” headlines may prompt more people to commit to fact-checking. While there are many parts of the world currently without dedicated fact-checking initiatives (at least per the Duke Reporters’ Lab database), I expect that there will be new projects in three countries specifically.

Australia, which saw a major fact-checking outfit shut down in 2016, Germany, with an upcoming election and threats of regulation of fake news, and India, rocked by questionable claims about demonetization, seem to be particularly ripe for new fact-checkers.

4. The term “fact-checking” will get hijacked

“Fake news” was a useful term to describe willingly fabricated stories designed to do well on social media by websites primarily interested in making a quick buck out of it. Unfortunately, it was often used to denote anything from inaccurate reporting to hyperpartisan news sources. As John Herrman predicted in November, it came back to haunt the media as a catch-all condemnation for untrustworthy journalists.

We have seen some of this happen to the term fact-checking, too. The misuse has often been small-scale: “fact check” tags placed on articles about Meryl Streep being overrated or on Trump’s alleged personal Mount Rushmore of dictators. More disturbing offenders include the genocide-denying FactCheck Armenia. A greater discussion over the role of fact-checking could lead detractors to subvert the very meaning of the word (though with fact-checking, unlike with fake news, there is at least a broader consensus of what it means).

5. The advent of automation that fact-checkers actually use

This prediction is (almost) a repeat from last year’s list, which didn’t quite miss but didn’t strike the target either. What movement there was in automated fact-checking in 2016 was mostly in the realm of defining the challenge, with a conference in March, a report in August and a sprinkle of Google funding (to FactMata and Full Fact) in November.

More projects are expected in 2017 (for instance from Duke University), when the winners of the HeroX and FakeNewsChallenge competitions will also be announced. With a lot more eyes on the problem, I believe we could reach the end of the year with an automated tool that fact-checkers start deploying in their daily work. But this is something between a prediction and a leap of faith, so I may well end up embarrassed yet again in 2018.

6. Fun with formats

When it comes to formats used to present fact checks, 2016 saw a flurry of innovation. Long attached to thick blocks of text loaded with hyperlinks, fact-checkers tried new stuff like GIFs — and were often rewarded for it by readers, as in the case of the record-breaking NPR annotations or The Washington Post Fact Checker’s forays on Snapchat. Expect more of this.

7. Breakthroughs in transparency

In many parts of the world, fact-checkers’ devotion to transparent sourcing — direct links to primary evidence, a distaste for anonymous sources — makes them outliers in the media industry. Still, because fact-checkers suffer if readers lose trust in primary evidence, they will likely try to find new ways to build trust with readers. The only way forward seems to be greater transparency.

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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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