I’ve reported on misinformation for more than a year. Here’s what I’ve learned.

December 27, 2018
Category: Fact-Checking

I’ve been called a “cog in the machine” and a “(George) Soros stooge” — not to mention all the anti-gay slurs on 4chan.

The Brazilian far right has harassed me on Twitter.

I’ve had weeks-long conversations (and arguments) on Facebook with a guy in Maine who swears he’s not a fake news writer, but merely a liberal troll who’s out to make conservatives look stupid.

One time the brother of a dead fake news writer texted me a photo of a Saddam Hussein snowman the two of them made as children in Minnesota.

These are only a few of the bizarre interactions I’ve grown used to as a reporter covering the misinformation beat for Poynter over the past year and a half. I’ve reported in places spanning from Tulsa to Johannesburg, covering topics as small as how groups of friends are fact-checking hoaxes on WeChat and as big as the European Union’s anti-misinformation efforts. It’s been simultaneously thrilling and exhausting to keep up with the constant barrage of fakery and those fighting it.

And at the same time, I’ve learned a few lessons since I started this beat. Here’s a sampling.

1. ‘Misinformation’ isn’t just one thing.

When I started writing about this space, I thought I’d mostly be focused on writing about fake news sites and how journalists were debunking them. Boy, was I wrong.

A political party in Belgium used artificial intelligence to create deepfake videos of politicians. Scammers peddle fake health products on messaging apps in Southeast Asia. There are even a number of fake fact-checking projects around the world. And the list goes on and on.

Misinformation is a constantly evolving phenomenon that knows no bounds when it comes to format, platform, message and creator. It exists in pretty much every context on Earth. The problem is way bigger than I initially thought — and it can’t all be boiled down to “fake news.”

2. Fact-checking is not spared from partisan critiques.

When I mention (Poynter-owned) PolitiFact to most of my sources, their ears perk up. There’s instant name recognition for the first fact-checking project to win the Pulitzer Prize. But just like mainstream media sources, fact-checking does have its haters.

There are the self-proclaimed fact-checking watchdogs, like sister projects Zebra Fact Check and PolitiFact Bias, which are some of the most vocal critics of both PolitiFact and the International Fact-Checking Network. Then there’s run-of-the-mill partisan bickering, particularly from politicians who have been fact-checked as making false statements.

Finally, there are more nuanced debates about fact-checking. When The Weekly Standard’s fact-checking project debunked a headline from ThinkProgress earlier this year, it set off a firestorm about who’s allowed to participate in Facebook’s fact-checking project — and what even constitutes fact-checking and misinformation (Disclosure: Being a signatory of the International Fact-Checking Network’s code of principles is a necessary condition for joining the project.)

3. Writing for other journalists sucks. But it also makes you a better reporter.

Poynter is the definition of meta. It’s a nonprofit journalism institute that teaches other journalists how to be better journalists and (get this!) we also have in-house journalists who cover other journalists!

When I started working here as a Google News Lab Fellow in summer 2017, I was immediately struck by how hard it is to write about other people in media. They know the rules, are far less likely to slip up and say something newsworthy than normal people and, in my experience, are less transparent than sources on other beats. Plus there’s the fact that, if you screw up, they will call you out immediately — and publicly.

While that’s been a challenge, especially considering my primary audience is fact-checkers, it’s also been a gift. When I messed up the magazine where Nikole Hannah-Jones worked in my first piece for Poynter, it stung a lot (thanks for not firing me, Ben Mullin!). And in every correction since then, I’ve learned to be far more precise, methodical and scrutinizing in my reporting. When you publish a story, pretend there’s an army of fact-checkers analyzing each piece you write — because sometimes there is.

4. Don’t feed the trolls.

It was somewhat shocking to see my photo published on a Brazilian blog earlier this year, amid accusations that Poynter was censoring members of the far-right movement there ahead of the election. Twitter trolls even shared screenshots of my profile picture (which is just a Snapchat filter, OK!)

That attack came after Brazilian fact-checkers joined Facebook’s anti-misinformation project. While it was tempting to address the fact that I had no say in what fact-checkers did and didn’t debunk, I decided to stay quiet and — as Vera Files’ Yvonne Chua often says — not feed the trolls. Since then, I’ve been targeted by some minor trolling activity, but I’ve always stuck to that mantra so that I can keep my sanity and don’t give the trolls more ammunition.

If you’re covering a beat which will likely make you a few enemies, only address legitimate, conversation-starting questions that are asked in good faith. Everything else is a waste of your time.

5. You can’t possibly cover everything. Find your niche.

When I first started reporting on fact-checking and misinformation, I had bad anxiety and FOMO pretty much every day. How could I try to report on a space that, while somewhat small and emerging, has been doggedly covered by other, larger news outlets? I was also 23 years old and fresh out of journalism school.

While I don’t think I’ve necessarily answered that question over the past year, I’ve certainly gotten a little closer. Instead of trying to play the role of a debunker during breaking news events or breaking news reporter when scoops break about the tech industry, I’ve consistently tried to offer analysis, resources and stories about how misinformation, fact-checking and technology all work together. Figuring out the role of both Poynter and myself in all of those things is a time-consuming, arduous process, and it’s worth taking a step back and reconsidering your goals on a weekly basis.

For reporters in similarly meta situations, don’t try to chase a shiny story just because everyone else is — make sure it fits your outlet’s mission and is of interest to your readers first. Then, think about what you and your organization can offer to the conversation. An analysis that offers new insight about the news is more valuable to than another rewrite.

6. Just because something is weird or eye-catching doesn’t mean it’s benign.

This is perhaps one of the biggest lessons I’ve learned since I started covering misinformation. A lot of the discussion around fake news carries an air of comedy — and why not? Internet falsities have a long and strange history, dating back to forums of the early 1990s where urban legends, and Snopes, thrived.

But since the 2016 U.S. election, it’s become increasingly clear that there’s often nothing benign about the spread of fakery online. In India, rumors on WhatsApp have contributed to the public lynching of more than 25 people since May. Users on fringe websites frequently coordinate hoaxes with the goal of duping the mainstream media into covering them. And governments around the world are profiting off the rise of fake news to restrict press freedoms around the world.

When we frame online misinformation, journalists have to do a better job of not playing into the hands of misinformers. Sure, playing up stories about a migrant caravan headed toward the United States might attract a lot of eyeballs — but it could also do more harm than good. Journalists are more than just passive observers of history, and we can all do a better job at choosing what we decide to amplify.

7. Building mutual relationships with other reporters — and sources — is essential.

Misinformation is exhausting. It’s on virtually every platform, it never really stops coming and finding trends and sources to make sense of it all can be a challenge.

Since starting this job, I’m lucky to have built relationships with other reporters who cover digital dystopia. Shoutout to Jane Lytvynenko at BuzzFeed News, with whom I regularly shop story ideas and gossip about the beat. Without the guidance of Angie Holan at PolitiFact, I wouldn’t have even thought to tackle some of the stories I’ve published over the past year and a half. And Claire Wardle at First Draft never fails to make me laugh.

If you’re on a similarly complex beat, find other reporters who cover the same area or sources whom you can confide in. Amplify their work, study their approach and — most importantly — talk to them. It can be both cathartic and informative to have conversations with people who, in many respects, are your direct competition. Don’t be afraid to bounce ideas off them and lean on them for support if you’re working on a particularly difficult story.

8. Trust your gut. Beware of the FONs.

The first half of this is Reporting 101, but it becomes even more important when you’re parsing through complex, political narratives online — not to mention the constant barrage of press releases from people who think they’ve figured out the future of news (FONs, as we say here at Poynter).

I’ve been pitched blockchain platforms that promise to solve the problem of misinformation on the internet. It seems like I hear about new crowdsourced fact-checking projects on a daily basis. And a lot of people are working on browser plug-ins that endeavor to tell people whether or not what they’re reading is true — despite the potential for them to misfire. While it’s technologists’ job to experiment with these solutions, I’ve learned that a healthy dose of skepticism needs to inform any reporting on misinformation.

If you’re reporting on a niche beat, beware of public relations people who try to push their objectively bad products on you. It may seem tempting to write a headline like “This platform is using blockchain to fight fake news,” but ask yourself: Is it true? Is it even possible? And am I doing a service to my readers by bringing attention to this thing?

If the answer to any of those questions is “no,” pass.