May 25, 2018

Désintox had a problem.

It was spring 2017, the aftermath of the French presidential election. The fact-checking outlet faced a perception problem — that as a project of the editorially left-leaning Libération, it only fact-checked right-wing politicians.

“With Désintox … we really had an image of biased fact-checker — ‘OK, you’re only checking the far right and when it’s the left you like them,” said Pauline Moullot, a journalist at the fact-checking project.

So the fact-checkers decided to reboot their brand and distribution model entirely after almost a decade of operations, expanding a three-day project they tested during the election.

“We saw that we had questions from readers that we usually didn’t reach. We had questions from anyone — and not especially readers of fact-checking and Désintox,” Moullot said.

Enter CheckNews, a kind of on-demand fact-checking platform aimed at giving readers answers to questions immediately.

“With CheckNews, we answer questions about anything from anyone,” Moullot said.

The site lets users search for fact checks related to specific topics. If it hasn’t already been fact-checked, they can also make suggestions in a brief form. (Disclosure: The International Fact-Checking Network awarded CheckNews a $50,000 Fact Forward innovation grant last week.)

CheckNews, which launched in September, was the outgrowth of an idea from a public relations firm that approached Libération last year. All the fact-checkers had to do was plug in their work.

“We’ve got a lot of questions about checking photos and videos once they become viral,” Moullot said. “What surprised us, maybe, is that we have many questions about how journalism works and how Libération works … Every time we have a big media event, we have questions about how the media work.”

Here’s a sampling of some questions readers have asked so far:

“The media claims that the poorest 10 percent of French lost €337 because of Macron. Is it true?”

“Is it true that CheckNews received $ 50,000 from a Soros-funded institute?”

“Is it true that in Utrecht, a statue symbolizing the fall of the ‘white male’ is under construction?”

“We answered these questions — we want to expand our audience,” Moullot said.

CheckNews selects which questions to answer based on newsworthiness, Moullot said. The project is partly funded by the money that Libération gets from Facebook for being one of its fact-checking partners, which allows them to debunk hoaxes and limit their reach on the platform. (Being a signatory of the IFCN’s code of principles is a necessary condition for the partnership.)

And now, CheckNews is rolling out the platform to other countries.

During Tunisia’s municipal elections in early May, CheckNews partnered with the investigative journalism site Nawaat to answer questions from Tunisian voters. The goal: Provide more context for people in a country without a dedicated fact-checking project.

“We had questions from students in Tunisia (about) why there was no fact-checking in Tunisia, and if there could be a similar project there for the municipal elections,” Moullot said. “We responded to the questions and then thought that it would be a good idea to try it.”

Four journalists from CheckNews and Libération traveled to Tunis to assist Nawaat in fact-checking the elections, answering about one reader question per day. They published answers in both French and Arabic and cross-posted on both Libération and Nawaat.

Thameur Mekki, editor of Nawaat, told Poynter that the most common questions were related to the technical aspects of the elections. He compiled each question into a Google Doc to collaborate with Libération journalists and his own colleagues, which Mekki said gave some much-needed perspective to their coverage.

“They had the distance to take a more accurate look on what we were living here,” he said. “When you are not from the country, you can have the whole picture. It helps.”

Despite that, the partnership’s reception wasn’t stellar in either country.

“The only limit is that it didn’t work that well in the audience,” Moullot said. “In France, we didn’t have that many views, but at the same time it was only a (Tunisian) local election — not even presidential elections. And we know that people are naturally interested in what happens in other countries, (but) the answers that only focused on Tunisia didn’t do that well.”

Mikki said Nawaat didn’t see a traffic bump from the project either, and that the project overall was fairly “ordinary.”

While she couldn’t share traffic data, Moullot said the fact-checking work overall has taken a pretty substantial hit to its SEO since abandoning the Désintox brand. Over the next few months, she said her team will work with Libération to continue migrating the project — which was formerly on a separate platform — back to the main site, which will hopefully fix the problem.

Also on the horizon: partnering with other fact-checkers interested in using the CheckNews platform.

Moullot said the project attracted interest from Turkish fact-checking site Teyit to use during the upcoming presidential election in that country. Teyit journalist Gülin Çavuş confirmed the interest but noted there isn’t enough time to build out the platform ahead of early elections in June.

While CheckNews doesn’t have the funding or resources to partner with non-French speaking countries right now, Moullot said she hopes to in the future.

“What we want to do in the project is have a common platform where you can find every answer from every country and click, ‘I only want to see responses in French, Turkish or English,’ and see one the answers,” she said. “We still have to roll out a few details.”

When asked what the primary benefit of importing an audience-centric platform like CheckNews to another country is, Mekki gave the same reason Moullot had for adopting the format in the first place.

“Usually at Nawaat we work on features, we work on investigations, we work on big reports," he said. “Now, with this operation … we had the opportunity to answer some simple questions — sometimes those questions are what you don’t even think about.”

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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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