Since January, Poynter has been keeping track of how some of the top fact checks from around the world perform on Facebook compared to the hoaxes they debunk. Overall, it hasn’t been a pretty picture — misinformation regularly gets more likes, shares and comments than fact checks.
And the problem is deeper than Facebook.
This week, Factcheck.org debunked a meme published in February that falsely claimed climate change is a “made-up catastrophe” in spite of an overwhelming scientific consensus that the crisis is real. The fact check outperformed the hoax by more than 3,000 engagements, according to the audience metrics tool BuzzSumo.
But the falsehood, which seems to have originated from a hyperpartisan site called the Patriot Post in December, wasn’t only on Facebook. As of publication, the same meme had racked up more than 10,000 likes on Instagram, where it was published two months after the original post. The Facebook-owned photo-sharing platform has become rife with misinformation and conspiracies over the past few months.
Below is a chart with other top fact checks since last Tuesday in order of how many likes, comments and shares they got on Facebook, according to data from BuzzSumo and CrowdTangle. Read more about our methodology here.
Misinformation like that bogus climate change meme frequently jumps between platforms, languages and countries. False claims know no borders. And tech companies are addressing that problem by leveraging the work of fact-checkers like Factcheck.org.
Since 2016, Facebook has been partnering with fact-checking sites to find and limit the spread of false posts. Once a link, image or video is rated as false by a fact-checker, its reach is decreased in the News Feed, users are warned when they try to share it and the offending page is put on notice. (Disclosure: Being a signatory of Poynter’s International Fact-Checking Network code of principles is a necessary condition for joining the project.)
Last week, that project was expanded to Instagram in order to limit the reach of false posts in the Explore tab and on hashtag feeds. Now, Facebook will use signals from fact-checkers to limit the spread of duplicate hoaxes on both platforms.
That’s a good step toward scaling the work of fact-checkers on social media. But they still have their work cut out for them.
Factcheck.org found two other posts that included the bogus climate change meme it debunked this week: one on Twitter and another on Instagram. In a reverse image search, Poynter found the hoax 19 more times on hyperpartisan websites, in tweets and Facebook posts. Some Twitter users replied to mainstream news organizations’ tweets about climate change with the false meme.
And Factcheck.org wasn’t the only fact-checking organization to try to contain a widely spread falsehood in the past week.
On May 7, Estadão Verifica, a fact-checking site based in Brazil, debunked a false story that claimed that cuts in the federal universities’ budget were due to “due to irregularities in the accountability of educational institutions.” That fact check went massively viral, accumulating more than 46,000 engagements on Facebook — but so did the hoax, with nearly 150,000.
Estadão reported that the false story, which the Jornal da Cidade Online retracted after being debunked, had also been flagged by readers on WhatsApp. Rumors and hoaxes spread widely on the private messaging app, whose encryption makes it impossible for journalists to analyze what content is being shared and how many people have seen it.
This kind of misinformation translation happens frequently. In February, an anti-vaccine conspiracy theory went viral on Facebook in France only one week after (Poynter-owned) PolitiFact debunked the same hoax in the United States. The only difference was the language.
Over the past few years, several collaborative fact-checking projects have launched with the goal of consolidating resources to debunk falsehoods that spread across borders. CrossCheck, a project from First Draft, was among the first. More recently, 19 newsrooms in the European Union teamed up to fact-check misinformation about this month’s parliamentary elections.
“Hoaxes and misleading information travel easily across European borders,” Jules Darmanin, a French journalist who manages the FactCheckEU project, told Poynter in March. “Our 19 partners share what they find out on a national level, and I can tie it up together so that we have a broader picture.”
These efforts are promising, but our rough analyses from the past few months show they still can’t contain some of the most viral hoaxes on the internet. And too often, academics, policymakers and journalists (including me) talk about how to debunk single pieces of falsehoods on one specific platform.
Playing misinformation whack-a-mole isn’t going to stop the spread of falsehoods across the internet. Neither is confining anti-misinformation efforts to one company, language or country. And while fact-checkers’ work is invaluable in the fight against fakery, it’s clear that they alone can’t stop the amplification of false claims.
We need more credible efforts aimed at increasing the penetration of facts across the internet. Until then, fact-checkers still have their work cut out for them.