February 15, 2018

It all started with a billboard.

Journalists at TheJournal.ie Fact Check saw an anti-abortion banner claiming that 90 percent of babies with Down syndrome in the United Kingdom are aborted. The statistic in the billboard is accompanied by the photo of a child with the condition. So they looked at the numbers and published an in-depth fact sheet.

The fact-checkers found evidence for the statistic when it comes to prenatally diagnosed Down syndrome. They then noted that the poster lacked some context: About a third of babies with the condition are diagnosed after birth. The billboard wasn’t rated false, but incomplete: The impression given is that there would be 10 times as many British children with Down syndrome alive if it weren’t for targeted abortions.

Nuanced statistics and a difficult subject made for a combustible mix ahead of this summer’s referendum on Ireland’s abortion ban.

Representatives from The Life Institute, the organization sponsoring the Save the 8th campaign behind the poster, questioned why TheJournal.ie was fact-checking the claim in the first place, accusing reporter Aoife Barry of being biased for asking the question, TheJournal.ie editor Susan Daily told Poynter in an email.

Then, things went from bad to worse.

After the story’s publication Sunday evening, several Irish newsrooms received a press release from Save the 8th claiming that TheJournal.ie had verified their claim rather than adding context to it. Adding insult to injury, the campaign — whose name refers to the eighth amendment to the Irish Constitution — used The Journal’s trademarked logo in the release.

Save the 8th press release
Save the 8th used TheJournal.ie's logo without permission in a press release. (Screenshot from thelifeinstitute.net)

Daly then took to Twitter to ensure that people had the right context about the claim, which TheJournal.ie has fact-checked before — and found “mostly true” in a debate setting where more context was offered. But Daly refrained from taking official action in an attempt to limit the reach of the release.

“I toyed with issuing a statement on our official TheJournal.ie social media channels and website but realized that, in fact, the reach of Save the 8th was limited and, in fact, I could be drawing more attention to their false claim, something which I believe they desperately want,” she said.

Paradoxically, Save the 8th says that TheJournal.ie simultaneously got their fact check wrong and supported the campaign’s original claim therein. In an email to Poynter, communications director John McGuirk said labeling the poster as false or misleading isn’t accurate because the statistic is correct (it isn’t, in the context they used it).

He amounted the entire episode to a case of partisan bias.

“What appears to have happened here is that TheJournal.ie, which is a liberal publication, was somewhat panicked by the idea that it may in some way have been used to validate an argument made by a campaign that it is instinctively hostile to,” he said. “The assertions made by the editor about what her article actually says are not backed up remotely by a read of the article itself.”

On Feb. 5, Daly sent an email to Save the 8th requesting that they remove the press release misappropriating their fact check and logo by the end of the day. As of publication, the release was still online.

When asked about using TheJournal.ie’s logo, McGuirk said Save the 8th wanted to help their readers find the article.

“We wanted, and still want, as many voters as possible to read that fact check,” he said. “We believe it helps us.”

McGuirk said the campaign received informal legal advice claiming the graphic is protected by Irish fair use law. But Eoin O’Dell, an associate professor of law at Trinity College Dublin, told Poynter in an email there is no fair use in Irish law for copyrights or trademarks.

"As for their informal legal advice, it's so informal that it amounts to wishful thinking," he said.

Daly said that, after she reported the doctored image to Facebook as a potential trademark infringement, it was removed from Save the 8th’s page.

The bizarre kerfuffle highlights the political tension that has consumed Ireland over the past few weeks. This summer, the country will hold a referendum to decide whether or not to repeal its ban on abortion in most circumstances.

The misappropriation of TheJournal.ie’s recent fact check is an example of how political campaigns can nefariously latch onto fact-checking. And Mark Stencel said that’s fairly common.

“Citing fact checks to bolster an argument or pummel an opponent may seem at odds with the goals of fact-checking, if you think fact-checking will clean up politics. But it's a logical political strategy,” according to the co-director of the Duke Reporters’ Lab (which sponsors the International Fact-Checking Network’s Global Fact summit). “We've seen examples of that in the U.S. in ads and during the debates in 2016 and earlier campaigns — especially in local or regional politics, where some of the candidates are less familiar to voters than national political figures.”

In a previous report for Poynter, Stencel wrote about how political ads in North Carolina during the 2016 election misused media fact checks to attack specific candidates. One 30-second commercial from Republican Sen. Richard Burr used two fact checks to make a comment on the Democratic challenger’s position on the state’s sex offender registry, distorting one in the process. Similar misuses of fact-checking have run the gamut from Pennsylvania Senate races to presidential debates.

“In those kinds of races, any media report that in effect calls you a liar can and will be used as a weapon, in the same way a positive fact check can be used as a shield,” Stencel said. “Misrepresenting a fact check is not legit. And the referees need to call that out. Given the reach many fact-checkers have, it's the best way to counteract the erroneous message.”

However, directly combating the misleading use of fact checks often gives more ammunition to the original offender, he said — a point Daly recognized. And, despite the relative commonality of misappropriated fact-checking in the U.S., she said the entire incident is rather unprecedented in Ireland.

“I think it's unfortunate that Save the 8th chose to be disingenuous (if I am being generous) with the substance of our article,” she said. “The manipulation of a trusted fact check brand is a worrying development in Ireland and one that we had not experienced to date even though we have fact-checked the leader of the government, numerous politicians and high-profile members of society.”

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Daniel Funke is a staff writer covering online misinformation for PolitiFact. He previously reported for Poynter as a fact-checking reporter and a Google News Lab…
Daniel Funke

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