Nestled between the borders of Russia and China — two nations internationally notorious for their state-backed disinformation campaigns — lies Mongolia, a country now preparing to fight electoral false news.
The country will elect a new parliament in 2020 and a new president in 2021, and in light of this has just launched a fact-checking collaborative project with 20 television, newspaper and radio outlets from around the country.
FactCheck Mongolia started a few weeks ago and resembles those fact-checking alliances seen in Latin America lately: Reverso in Argentina, Comprova in Brazil and VerificaUY in Uruguay.
Mongolia’s vast and mountainous landscapes are home to a uniquely chaotic media environment. As of a 2016 report from Reporters Without Borders, 74% of media outlets in the country have political affiliations. While media freedom is guaranteed by law, there’s no regulation on things like election ads.
That means media outlets and politicians alike can fill the news cycle with misinformation.
Fact-check Mongolia is trying to change this.
“For the coming election, we’re expecting a huge production of fake news,” said Tamir Tsolmonbaatar, the project manager, in an email to the IFCN. “That’s why Mongolian media have agreed to do something (to fight back) … We are trying not to get left behind on this worldwide trend (of political fact-checking).”
Mongolia’s parliamentary elections are coming up in 2020, as well as local elections at the provincial and district levels. In 2021, a new president will be elected.
Parliamentary elections in 2016 included 498 candidates running in 76 electorate districts, so Tsolmonbaatar said he expects there will be plenty of politically motivated disinformation flooding social media platforms.
According to the Communications Regulatory Commission of Mongolia, 83.5% of the total population use the internet regularly.
“Social media use increased during (the parliamentary election in 2016),” Tsolmonbaatar said. “But there’s yet to be any law implemented to regulate election ads in social media environments.”
Some government actors have taken steps to address misinformation by drafting laws and bills that would regulate social media use more strictly. But for now, the press is frequently opaque when it comes to funding and ownership, and Tsolmonbaatar said this allows for politicians to bribe journalists and media outlets into publishing flattering yet completely falsified content.
This was the case for the presidential election of 2017, when the candidate Sainkhüügiin Ganbaatar, a member of the Mongolian People’s Revolutionary Party, posed for a photo in which he appeared to be digging snow out from underneath his car.
“The truth was, his car hadn’t gotten stuck in the snow, it was stopped at a paved road,” Tsolmonbaatar explained. “He was trying to show how humble and personable he was, and ran ‘hidden’ campaign ads (on social media) using this photo.”
According to Tsolmonbaatar, political candidates also frequently disseminate completely falsified photos, videos or claims about their opponents to large audiences on social media platforms or via news outlets, and Mongolia’s General Election Commission has yet to act.
To fight back, Fact-Check Mongolia’s principal goal is to develop the skills necessary for fact-checking in all the newsrooms that have joined the alliance. This includes 13 from the capital city of Ulaanbaatar and seven from local provinces, as well as a mix of radio, magazine, newspaper and television platforms.
Journalists will take part in several training sessions funded by Deutsche Welle Akademie, a German state-owned public international broadcaster. The Mongolian Center for Investigative Reporters, which Tsolmonbaatar co-founded, will also organize and fund follow-up training and consulting sessions.
The whole operation will be run from Truly Media, an online collaboration platform designed to support the verification of social media content.
Tsolmonbaatar said the organization’s members hope to be ready in time to fact-check the 2020 elections, and be able to publish reliable, evidence-based information.
He said that he hopes fact-checking picks up among other media sites, though these are often poorly resourced and reporters may not have the money or time.
“We have a national, common understanding of what it means to do fact-checking within traditional media productions, but not what it means to do political fact-checking and hoax debunking,” he said. Mongolia’s journalism schools have yet to offer a course on this specific kind of journalistic verification, but Tsolmonbaatar said some are working on updating their curriculum.
All 20 newsrooms in the alliance have agreed to follow the International Fact-Checking Network’s Code of Principles for best practices in fact-checking, including transparency, nonpartisanship and an honest corrections policy.
Nonetheless, Tsolmonbaatar said he expects politicians to react negatively to the project. “They’ll probably spread negative information about us, and maybe try to influence some of our journalists or allied newsrooms,” he said.
“But we believe journalists and newsrooms that joined our network won’t get bought.”