The annual Global Fact-Checking Summit is an opportunity for journalists, academics and technologists to come together as a network and exchange new insights and past experiences. But it’s also a breeding ground for impactful ideas that can grow into tangible, large-scale projects in the years to come. This year’s conference, hosted by Poynter’s International Fact-Checking Network, will run from June 19-21 at the University of Cape Town in South Africa.
At last year’s Global Fact V, in Rome, one of the most anticipated panels was a Q&A with Tessa Lyons, a product manager at Facebook who came to speak about the platform’s partnership with fact-checking organizations. Facebook has been partnering with some of the International Fact-Checking Network’s signatories to fight the spread of misinformation on the platform since 2016, and by the time of the 2018 conference, the project had expanded to 35 partners in 24 countries.
But at Global Fact V, some organizations still felt that Facebook was not doing enough to protect their safety online. Fact-checkers from Brazil and the Philippines, who suffered online harassment and trolling as a result of the Facebook partnership, were anxious to redress their concerns with Lyons.
They got their moment when, near the end of the panel, Tai Nalon of Aos Fatos in Brazil asked Lyons if it would be possible for Facebook to set up a legal fund to protect fact-checkers in such situations. The crowd responded with applause.
This seed of an idea has since flourished into the Fact-Checkers Legal Support Initiative, which was announced in January. A collaboration between the International Fact-Checking Network, the Media Legal Defence Initiative (MLDI) and the Reporters’ Committee for Freedom of the Press, the project is designed to grant fact-checkers access to legal support and resources.
It draws on donations from Facebook, as well as pro bono contributions from WilmerHale, an American law firm that has offices all across the globe.
In the year since the fund’s conception, how has it advanced? IFCN spoke to Alexios Mantzarlis, former director of the network, and Lucy Freeman, MLDI’s chief executive officer, to find out.
From an idea to reality
Mantzarlis, a research fellow at TED Conferences who was the director of the IFCN at last year’s Global Fact and spearheaded the fund’s creation, explained that conversations from Rome inspired the project’s initiation.
“Journalists in Brazil, the Philippines and Italy were getting threatened, either with physical violence, intimidations or even legally,” he said. “There were two or three occasions where lawsuits were threatened by organizations that had been flagged by fact-checkers on Facebook.”
Mantzarlis said he saw this as a call for the IFCN to step in.
“We thought the IFCN could provide some ease of mind to fact-checkers that if something like this were to happen, there would be resources to support them, considering that lawsuits can be very expensive and fact-checkers tend to have very small budgets.”
That’s when he turned to the MLDI, which provides legal defense to journalists, bloggers and independent media all around the world. Lucy Freeman explained that, at the time Mantzarlis reached out, “we were already set up to provide legal defense for journalists who are in trouble,” so it was just a matter of “expanding our system to fill the explicit needs of the fact-checker network.”
But, since its inception, no one has utilized the fund.
“We’ve had a couple of queries from fact-checkers who weren’t formally part of the network, and others who have just had conversations about potential cases,” Freeman said. Baybars Örsek, the current director of IFCN, confirmed that fact-checkers who do not belong to the IFCN’s verified list of signatories are free to use the fund. But none of these cases have come to fruition.
“I think that’s definitely a best case scenario,” Manzarlis said. “I’d rather we have it and not use it than not have it and need to use it.”
Freeman suggested that fact-checkers may still not be knowledgeable enough about the fund, or may feel they are still too vulnerable to go up against powerful people in legal cases.
“A lot of the cases across the board are people that have more power and more money than the fact-checkers’ agendas, so the threat of legal action can be very scary and very expensive,” she explained. “It can seem like the safest thing to do is just to take down the (fact-check).
“Very often these journalists are not falling out of the law, but just the threat of a lawsuit is enough to feel persecuted.”
She added that MLDI’s cases have a 70% success rate, so she said she believes that the fund can “really have a good impact if people are confident enough to actually fight the case.”
Freeman will be at this year’s Global Fact 6 in Cape Town, leading a workshop titled “Supporting Fact-Checkers in Hostile Legal Environments” along with Padraig Hughes, also from the MLDI, on Thursday, June 20. Later that day, Kate Wilkinson of Africa Check and Mevan Babakar of Full Fact will host another workshop titled “Harassment and Trolling as a Result of Fact-Checking.”