Fact-checking has always been part of AFP’s editorial process, but in 2018 we built up an outward-facing international fact-checking team to focus on investigating dubious pictures, videos, official statements and other information being shared widely online.
We’ve gone from just one fact-checker in France a year ago, when we signed on to the IFCN’s code of principles and started working as third party fact-checkers for Facebook, to more than 20 fact-checkers and editors worldwide, from Mexico to South Africa and from Colombia to India.
We’ve published more than 650 fact checks on blogs in four languages (AFP Factuel in French, AFP Fact Check in English, AFP Factual in Spanish and AFP Checamos in Portuguese) and, increasingly, on our news wires too.
Adding a country to our team opens a new can of worms as we encounter new political contexts and social media habits, as well as new languages. But our fact-checkers are integrated into AFP’s local bureaus and benefit enormously from sharing their knowledge and experience.
Here are some key lessons from coordinating our intercontinental fact-checking newsroom.
1. Hoaxes often reappear in different countries, particularly on topics such as migration, health or the environment.
Our growing team benefits from our scale by being able to quickly debunk stories that have already been investigated. For example, a video allegedly showing a television crew staging migrants drowning off a beach in Crete was shared tens of thousands of times, first in the Czech Republic but then throughout Western Europe and in North America. Fact checker Remi Banet located the incident and proved the viral pictures were actually from a documentary about the 1922 exodus from Asia Minor. Another story about a fictitious Canadian green card lottery keeps appearing in different African countries. Pictures of a shell-shocked Syrian girl who allegedly miraculously survived three separate bomb attacks have been widely shared online in Europe, the United States and the Middle East in the past two years. We easily identified the pictures as they were taken by an AFP freelance photographer, Ameer al-Halabi. They showed the girl was actually pictured passing through the arms of three different rescuers on the same day. We’ve recently seen false stories about the French yellow vest protests appear in other countries, like this story about an imaginary guillotine.
2. Investigations often span different countries.
AFP’s presence around the world makes it much easier to put together the pieces than if our fact-checkers were working alone. Often a fact-checker will contact a reporter in another country to follow a lead or investigate using their local contacts. For example, a video allegedly showing a Saudi man assaulting a London hospital receptionist was shared over 40,000 times on Facebook. The incident actually took place one year before in a Kuwaiti veterinary clinic — and an AFP journalist in the country was able to visit the location to confirm it. Transnational stories like the migrant caravan provided fertile ground for collaboration among journalists in different countries, said our Americas Editor Marisha Goldhamer.
3. Hoaxes in a single country are often linked to local politics and stay local — but not always.
Sometimes a story in one country will start going viral in another country despite having no obvious link to the original country. We often see false stories about US politics or celebrities in other countries, such as the Philippines or Nigeria. When Brazil’s lawmakers were voting to reduce controls on pesticides, an incorrect story that Denmark’s food would soon be 100 percent organic began to gain traction on Brazilian social networks.
4. Collaboration is essential.
We owe a lot to First Draft, who was behind the CrossCheck online verification project around the 2017 French elections. CrossCheck gave us valuable training and experience of collaborating with many different newsroom partners. After on-site training with our new fact-checkers, we continue training on verification online, as well as sharing technical problems and feedback. Slack and WhatsApp are great for collaborative work — but we have learned to keep group channels to a minimum!
5. False accounts often have enormous numbers of followers.
Examples from Asia Editor Karl Malakunas include a fake Facebook page in Indonesia with 700,000 followers that impersonates a celebrity Muslim cleric’s verified page that has seven million followers; a page in Pakistan with 3.4 million followers that impersonates the state-run television network’s cricket channel and multiple pages in the Philippines with million-plus followers that claim to be official supporters of ruling party politicians but have no “official” status and pump out streams of false content.
The benefits of scaling up definitely outweigh the challenges of putting together a rapidly growing team. We are constantly building on what we learn in other countries, starting with the valuable experience of our first fact-checker, Guillaume Daudin in France.
And now, we are gladly helping others collaborate. Deputy Chief Editor and Head of Social Media Grégoire Lemarchand trained journalists in Brazil for Comprova, a First Draft project around the Brazilian elections. Brazilian fact checker Pedro Noel recently trained journalists in Lagos for CrossCheck Nigeria, which started in November 2018.