How fact-checking has changed since 2015

Factually 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.

So long, fact-checkers

Friday is Alexios Mantzarlis’ last day as IFCN Director, so we’ll let him have the top of the newsletter this week. (He also got cake.) Alexios will be succeeded by Baybars Örsek, formerly the director of Turkish fact-checking site Doğruluk Payı. Cristina Tardáguila, the director of Brazilian fact-checking wire Agência Lupa, will also be joining the IFCN as associate director.

When I started as director of the International Fact-Checking Network in September 2015, there was very little there to direct. The idea was that I’d run the annual Global Fact conference and help the world’s fact-checkers exchange best practices. That was about it.

One of the only publications to cover my hire was the conspiracy-driven site Voltaire Network. “The CIA invests in journalism,” it headlined. I should have taken that as a sign of things to come.

Even in the United States, where fact-checking had deepest roots at the time, the public somewhat nonsensically expressed high favorability toward, but low familiarity with, the format. I had to spend a lot of time explaining what exactly I meant by fact-checking (I have a Venn diagram now).

Things changed. In the following years, the number of fact-checking projects globally almost tripled and they gained new roles vis-à-vis FacebookGoogle and other major information platforms. Fact-checking became the object of coordinated trolling and attacks.

If anything, we went from too little attention in fact-checking to too much. Policymakers and foundations suddenly decided that fact-checking was the silver bullet against online disinformation. Techno-utopian projects emerged to meet this surge in demand for solutions. I’m concerned that absurdly high expectations will be disappointed and a funding bubble might pop, dragging good projects down along with everyone else.

Fact-checkers remain remarkably understaffed and underfinanced, even for the standards of the journalism industry. Their reaction to crumbling trust was to commit to greater transparency. The code of principles that the IFCN oversees has been a significant step in the right direction, even if it has been trumpeted and financed less than other news credibility endeavors.

Even were the code implemented perfectly, which it is not, I don’t think we know that greater transparency leads to greater trust. Fact-checking is built on a reference to authority — not the authority of its authors, but that of their sources. While transparency is worth pursuing as a end in itself, we need to do a lot more work to understand what makes most people trust that a source of fact is an actual authority in the field being fact-checked.

There are hundreds of fact-checkers around the world. Here’s what some of them look like.

I don’t mean for any of this to sound too pessimistic. But — self-plagiarism alert — fact-checkers are no longer a fresh-faced journalistic reform movement; they are wrinkly arbiters of a take-no-prisoners war for the future of the internet. Greater impact requires more accountability.

Some undeniably good things have happened since 2015. Fact-checkers became a lot smarter about serving their audiences. My current fact-checking crush is Maldito Bulo, which harnesses its community through WhatsApp, launched smart new tools like an image search bar for doctored photos and beat hoaxers’ reach on Twitter. I will also always have a special place for Julien Pain’s effort to bring debunking to the streets. I could write 1,000 more words on other promising innovations.

We learned quite a bit more about the effects of fact-checking, and that, too, is encouraging. On average, in U.S.-based studies, people are willing to change their minds when corrected. A major, real-life test coordinated by the IFCN should soon yield actionable knowledge on how headlines affect readers’ understanding and acceptance of fact checks.

We also learned valuable lessons about dealing with the platforms. The first is that coordination matters. There’s a reason that Facebook turned to IFCN-verified fact-checkers to flag misinformation on the platform — we had the infrastructure to mobilize as a group and present a united front.

The other lesson is that scale matters: Despite continuous nagging, we’ve been unable to get Facebook to share data about this partnership with the public in any meaningful manner. Theories about platform reform vary dramatically from revolution and regulation to patience and persuasion. Regardless of your preferences, fixing the challenge of online disinformation will have to factor in this imbalance of power.

Here too, I think fact-checking has a role to play. The discussion about the responsibilities of platforms to fight misinformation has been hampered by a lack of facts — or an ignorance of them. So keep on fighting the good fight, fact-checkers.

… technology

  • A few weeks ago, YouTube announced that it would stop recommending some conspiracy theory videos in its recommendation algorithm. This week, someone who worked on building that algorithm explained on Twitter why the move is so significant. At the same time, Motherboard wrote that the way YouTube prioritizes audience feedback provides a structural imperative for creators to peddle misinformation.
  • WhatsApp said that it’s deleting 2 million accounts per month as part of its ongoing efforts to combat misinformation and spam on the messaging app. The data came out in a white paper published in India, where the government has pressed WhatsApp to be more transparent and accountable for the killings that have resulted from rumors on the platform.
  • Speaking of India, Facebook added five new fact-checking partners in the country this week ahead of a May election. The news came on the heels of several high-profile exits from the partnership, including Snopes and ABC News, and a little before the AFP and Full Fact gave mostly positive reviews to Digiday. Meanwhile, Twitter is also reportedly trying to amp up its anti-misinformation efforts ahead of the election.

… politics

  • President Trump twice this week criticized fact-checkers. First he did so in a tweet, and next at a political rally in El Paso. There, he called them “some of the most dishonest people in media,” falsely saying they didn’t check Barack Obama’s inaccurate claims about the Affordable Care Act. Actually, they did, said Factcheck.org.
  • At least 43 countries around the world have taken action against online misinformation, according to Daniel’s updated guide. New to the list: Canada, Côte d’Ivoire, Thailand and Vietnam. At the same time, the Los Angeles Times reported that countries in Asia are increasingly using misinformation as a means to exercise control over social media use.
  • Conspiracy theorists are falsely insisting that U.S. Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg is dead. The false claim seems to have originated on 4chan message boards that houses believers in the QAnon conspiracy theory, which posits that the U.S. government has been secretly investigating Democrats and the Justice Department will soon reveal compromising information about Hillary Clinton.

… the future of news

  • In 2018, we saw an increase in the number of collaborative verification projects — and it seems that growth is continuing into 2019. A new Philippine initiative called Tsek.ph launched this week to fact-check this year’s midterm elections. That project comes on the heels of CrossCheck Nigeria, which will no doubt be busy debunking rumors about this weekend’s general election.
  • As misinformation on WhatsApp becomes a greater threat around the world, the company has taken a few baby steps to contain the virality of messages. But in a Medium post published at the end of January, Aviv Ovadya outlined and expanded upon a proposal that would create a list of hoaxes users could reference that draws upon work from independent fact-checkers.
  • At the IFCN, we’re generally skeptical of the immediate impact of deepfake videos. But Wired reported that a new tool, which runs in the background while a video is recorded, could help distinguish authentic from tampered video. Yes, it relies on blockchain technology (insert groan here), but it reminds us of Truepic, a similarly promising tool that makes it easier for people to prove their photos are authentic from their inception.

Each week, we analyze five of the top-performing fact checks on Facebook to see how their reach compared to the hoaxes they debunked. Here are this week’s numbers.

  1. Factcheck.org: ‘False Claim About Ocasio-Cortez’s “Demand”’ (Fact: 4.7K engagements // Fake: 371)
  2. Rappler: ‘MISLEADING: Manila Bay “resort,” “soon-to-be-beach” photos’ (Fact: 4.5K engagements // Fake: 32.5K engagements)
  3. AFP: ‘“Yellow Vests”: decontextualized photos to criticize Macron’ (Fact: 2.0K engagements // Fake: 5.3K engagements)
  4. PolitiFact: ‘No, courts did not “quietly confirm” MMR vaccine causes autism’ (Fact: 1.6K engagements // Fake: 60 engagements)
  5. Teyit: ‘The claim that the photo shows Atatürk together with a wolf dog’ (Fact: 853 engagements // Fake: 4.8K engagements)

Let’s go back to that fact check from Teyit.

On Jan. 28, a Facebook user posted a black-and-white photo claiming to show former Turkish president Mustafa Kemal Atatürk with a dog. The photo was shared by an Atatürk fan page and got thousands of engagements. Teyit debunked the photo, saying the original photo depicted Adolf Hitler with his dog Blondi — and that Atatürk was photoshopped into it.

Teyit figured out the photo was manipulated by doing a reverse image search on the photo using RevEye. That took the site to Russian search engine Yandex, where fact-checkers found visually similar photos from Getty Images that depicted Hitler, not Atatürk. Then they found other photos of Hitler with his German shepherd, Blondi, and compared them to the hoax. It was the same dog.

Finally, Teyit traced the photo of Atatürk in the photoshopped image to a trip the leader took Izmit, Turkey, in summer 1922. Plus, Atatürk’s dog Foks didn’t look anything like Blondi.

What we liked: It didn’t get the most engagement among the fact checks we analyzed for Fact vs. Fake (on the contrary, the hoax it debunked got five times more Facebook engagements), but this is a smart fact check. Teyit methodically explained to readers the origin of each component of the manipulated photo, and the use of Yandex was smart and effective. And, as we constantly advise journalists to do at Poynter, Teyit got the names of the dogs (plural!).

  1. Former Snopes managing editor Brooke Binkowski penned an op-ed for BuzzFeed News in which she criticized Facebook’s fact-checking project.
  2. Poynter is hosting a webinar March 20 on how to use WhatsApp to fight misinformation. Sign up today!
  3. BuzzFeed and the Toronto Star are collaborating on a project to cover misinformation in advance of Canada’s general election this year.
  4. Public health officials in the U.K. are calling on Facebook to do something about closed groups that spread anti-vaccination messages.
  5. Adding to its repertoire of movie fact-checks, PolitiFact this week offered checks of two Academy Award-nominated films: “Vice” and “Green Book.” In August it checked “BlacKkKlansman.” Speaking of Best Picture nominees, Rolling Stone last year fact-checked “Bohemian Rhapsody.”
  6. More Jill Abramson fallout: Poynter’s Kelly McBride wrote that the former New York Times’s editor’s answers to charges of plagiarism in a new book about truth could hurt all of journalism. McBride was also asked about the issue in a broadcast of NPR’s “1A” from St. Petersburg, Florida, an episode dedicated to fact-checking.
  7. Fake photos have sparked reprisal killings in Nigeria, where fact-checkers are doing their best to discredit false information circulating online.  
  8. In the U.K., The Times investigated the origin of a fake news website that peddled propaganda using the BBC’s branding. Spoiler: The reporter found links to Macedonia.
  9. Amazon is selling hundreds of T-shirts that promote conspiracy theories.
  10. Speaking of Amazon, in Queens, N.Y., residents who support the company’s move to bring a second headquarters to Long Island City say they are fighting a ground war against misinformation surrounding the plans.

That’s it for this week. Send feedback or ideas to us at factchecknet@poynter.org. And if this email was forwarded to you, you can sign up here.

Daniel, Susan and Alexios