A New Year’s resolution for reporters: Be less technodeterminist

The Week in Fact-Checking is a newsletter about fact-checking and accountability journalism, from Poynter’s International Fact-Checking Network & the American Press Institute’s Accountability Project. Sign up here.

Resolve to be less technodeterminist

It’s really hard to prove that misinformation swings elections, causes violence or changes behaviors online.

“The question of impact is the disinformation research community’s white whale,” Paris Martineau wrote for Wired last month. “You can measure reach, you can measure engagement, but there’s no simple data point to tell you how one coordinated influence campaign affected an event or someone’s outlook on a particular issue.”

And yet, several stories about misinformation in 2018 conflated the presence of hoaxes and false claims with causality. Quartz reported that misinformation on WhatsApp “swayed” Brazil’s election. BuzzFeed News published a story titled “How WhatsApp Destroyed A Village (in India).”

These kinds of assertions are problematic for several reasons.

First, as Martineau noted in her piece, it’s nearly impossible to determine whether or not a misinformation campaign directly affected an event, so there’s the question of accuracy. Second, blaming misinformation for acts of violence takes the burden off other actors, such as government and law enforcement, who have a primary responsibility to protect citizens. Third, it confers more legitimacy upon misinformers whose goal is often to get mainstream news coverage.

In 2019, when tech platforms will continue to play an outsized role in the fight over misinformation, we would do well to be less technodeterminist in our reporting.

ICYMI

  • In the third and final episode of our limited-run podcast (Mis)informed, we tackled one big question about fact-checking: Is it really the best way to fight misinformation at scale? Let us know what you thought of the show here. Shall we keep it going?
  • Daniel shared some lessons he’s learned from reporting on misinformation over the past year and a half. No. 1: “Misinformation” isn’t just one thing.
  • The product manager in charge of Facebook’s anti-misinformation project told Poynter the company is working to share more public data in 2019.

Show and tell

  • Teyit.org has started publishing mini-fact-checking documentaries.
  • A Washington Post fact check about Trump’s family separation policy got the biggest readership in the project’s history in 2018.
  • The University of Kansas launched an online fact-checking course in partnership with the University for Humanities in Ekaterinburg, Russia.
Hundreds of Congolese voters who have been waiting at the St. Raphael school in the Limete district of Kinshasa Sunday Dec. 30, 2018, storm the polling stations after the voters listings were finally posted five hours after the official start of voting. (AP Photo/Jerome Delay)

The Bad Place

  • The Democratic Republic of Congo’s government shut down the internet on New Year’s Day to prevent the spread of “fictitious results” about last week’s presidential election. India leads the world in this kind of tactic.
  • In its annual roundup of the top fake news stories of the year, BuzzFeed News found that 50 hoaxes got about 22 million shares, reactions, and comments on Facebook in 2018. That’s only 1.5 million fewer interactions than the 2017 tally — and half a million more than 2016.
  • There’s now a fake news board game being sold at U.S. retail stores. *facepalm*

A closer look

  • New research suggests that, when fact-checking is presented alongside opinion articles defending journalism, readers’ trust in media increases.
  • Newsrooms are unprepared to deal with misinformation in 2019, First Draft’s Claire Wardle wrote. Here are five tips for how they can avoid amplifying bogus claims.
  • Africa Check’s Peter Cunliffe-Jones wrote for Nieman Lab that 2019 will be the year that Western newsrooms’ assumptions about misinformation will change.
(Shutterstock)

If you read one more thing

In a column for New York magazine, Max Read laid out how several layers of the 2018 internet were fake — from the people and content to the metrics and businesses.

10 quick fact-checking links

  1. BuzzFeed News wrote about some of the journalists working for CrossCheck Nigeria, which is fact-checking claims ahead of next month’s election.
  2. Agência Lupa’s Cristina Tardáguila reflected on the past three years fact-checking claims in Brazil.
  3. Libération dedicated its last front page of 2018 to fact-checking.
  4. People are bad at distinguishing real from fake news because they rarely leave the sites they’re on to do more research. For HuffPost, Sam Wineburg wrote about a solution: Read more like a fact-checker. MediaWise has some tips on how to do that.
  5. Deepfakes don’t need to be realistic to be harmful. Fake porn videos might be obviously false but can still be humiliating, The Washington Post reported.
  6. Journalists in Cameroon are being jailed on false news charges.
  7. In its first poll, The Washington Post Fact Checker found that fewer than 3 in 10 Americans believed several claims from President Donald Trump.
  8. In Brazil, WhatsApp started limiting the number of groups that users can forward messages to from 20 to five to cut down on spam and misinformation.
  9. Fact-checkers spend a lot of time, well, checking facts — but they don’t always find what they’re looking for. So Africa Check rounded up 10 claims it couldn’t prove true or false in 2018.
  10. EU signatories of the IFCN are launching a collaborative project for this year’s European Parliament elections, and it’s hiring a project manager.

Until next week,

Daniel and Alexios