Meet the 2018 International Fact-Checking Network fellows

The International Fact-Checking Network’s 2018 fellows will travel from Tel Aviv to Washington, D.C., and D.C. to Buenos Aires.

Manuela Tobias of (Poynter-owned) PolitiFact will embed with Buenos Aires-based Chequeado to learn more about automated fact-checking while Dror Sharon of The Whistle will visit PolitiFact from Israel to glean some best practices for covering elections.

The fellowships, which were launched in 2016, award a total of $5,000 to cover the costs of embedding with other fact-checking organizations around the world for a few weeks. The goal of the program is to help fact-checkers exchange best practices and increase their impact. (Read more here about the 2016 and 2017 fellows.)

While in Argentina, Tobias, a staff writer at PolitiFact, will learn how to use Chequeabot, which Chequeado built to partially automate its fact-checking process. The system uses natural language processing to automatically scrape news stories and broadcasts around the country for checkable claims, delivering them to Chequeado staff members in a dashboard.

Tobias said PolitiFact, which doesn’t currently have its own in-house automated system, could really benefit from a system that partially automates its process — especially during election periods.

“Now with the midterms, Trump has been doing a lot of rallies and, as we see with each speech that he gives, a lot of the talking points are ones that we already fact-checked. So usually after each rally, we stop to do a wrap story going through all the points he made and giving factual context,” she said. “That takes quite a lot of time because we have to manually Google and ask our colleagues whether we’ve already checked that.”

Since Chequeabot also matches checkable claims with a database of preexisting fact checks, Tobias said that, if PolitiFact were able to harness that technology, it would save them a lot of time. While visiting Chequeado, she said she will try to identify some ways they could adapt Chequeabot for an American context.

“We just thought that that would be a great tool that has already been developed and is being used by another fact-checking organization, so why not collaborate and extend the reach of that technological power?” Tobias said. “The main goal of my trip is to learn more about the technology that they use and how we can get it back here.”

Meanwhile, Sharon, a fact-checker at The Whistle, will visit PolitiFact in D.C. to learn more about how to cover an election. She said she’s concerned about how she and the rest of her seven-person team can use their limited resources to debunk political misinformation heading into Israel’s upcoming legislative contest in 2019.

“We’ve been talking about what we’re going to do in the next election for a while. We knew it was coming, we started coming up with different ways to prepare for it and tried to assess what it would take,” she said. “I think the main thing is that we’re operating on limited resources with quite a small team. I imagine we’ll have to change the way we manage resources.”

That’s where PolitiFact comes in. Since the project has covered six elections since launching in the run-up to the 2008 presidential campaign, Sharon said she hopes to come home with some best practices for allocating resources and live fact-checking debates and speeches. Then there’s the question about how to build trust with your audience — another challenge PolitiFact is familiar with.

“Something we’ve been talking a lot about lately was how you maintain balance and integrity when it seems our website might come across as very biased because about 80 percent of our checks are on members of the coalition and just 20 (percent) on the opposition,” Sharon said. “That’s the ratio of media coverage in general, but we do get readers coming to us saying that we never check members of the opposition, that we’re biased.”

Israel is not the United States, obviously. It’s smaller in both population and geography, and selecting which claims to check is easier than it might be for PolitiFact, which has to cover politics in 50 states, Sharon said. But with contentious debates over the economy, the conflict with Palestine and social issues, she’s concerned about getting to each statement in a timely manner.

“Ideally, I suspect we’ll have to respond to some statements (quickly), because in the very tight schedule of an election, every statement makes a bigger difference,” Sharon said. “So I think watching and observing and seeing what a fact-checking organization looks like when elections are happening in and of itself can be useful.”