When Facebook shows a map of countries in which its fact-checking program is active, Belgium appears as a hole — right in the heart of Europe.
The same thing happens when the International Fact-Checking Network (IFCN) points out where its verified signatories are based. Until early September, there were none in Belgium.
What’s up with those 11 million people living there? Don’t they struggle with false news and hoaxes like everyone else? Don’t they talk about fake news on Facebook, WhatsApp, Twitter and Instagram?
Yes, they do.
Maarten Schenk, the co-founder of the fact-checking site Lead Stories, was born and lives in Belgium. But for commercial reasons, he decided long ago he would verify pieces of content that were trending … in the United States.
“Belgium is relatively small and divided in two distinct linguistic communities (French and Dutch),” he said. “Each one of them has a small number of media brands and people know which ones are real. They don’t easily trust an unknown website pretending or claiming to be a TV station or a newspaper. This makes it much harder for commercially inspired fake news to get much traction compared to the situation in the U.S.”
The same situation makes it much harder for a fact-checking initiative to start operating, too.
This week, however, in the Dutch-speaking part of the country, both the public broadcaster (VRT) and the main commercial broadcaster (VTM) did special reports on how false ads have been using local celebrity photos and clickbait headlines to scam people out of their money.
Tim Pauwels, VRT’s ombudsman, pointed out in an interview with the IFCN other situations where deeper content analysis could have helped Belgians sort facts from fiction, especially on social media.
“In 2016, we had ISIS bomb attacks in Brussels, killing 32 innocent people,” he said. “Several articles published in 2018 by the Dutch Newspaper NRC Handelsblad and its Flemish counterpart De Standaard pointed out that Russian trolls spread about 900 posts via fake Twitter accounts blaming Islam and Muslims in general for the Brussels attacks.”
Fact-checking does exist in the traditional media, but it’s mainly focused on politicians and other more traditional stakeholders.
“Quite a lot of claims on social media or on biased websites remain unchallenged,” complained Pauwels.
Jan Jagers, the editor from Knack magazine, has applied for and expects to become Belgium’s first verified signatory to the IFCN’s Code of Principles. He might also be the first Facebook partner in his country. This week, he told the IFCN that Belgium also lacks research around misinformation. In his words, it is striking.
According to data he has been gathering, Facebook is the most popular social media platform in the nation, followed by WhatsApp. Instagram is on the rise and appears as the third most used social media in the rankings, but many more details are needed.
“This research gap is one of the main reasons that made academics write a memorandum and ask for a foundation and funding (to build) a new center of expertise,” said Jagers. “This center would facilitate and generate research, in collaboration with journalists. It would also further initiate and support the foundation and funding of an independent fact-checking organization in Flanders. A few weeks ago, the memorandum was handed over to politicians.”
Jagers points out that journalists and academics who study and try to counter mis/disinformation believe that Belgians should take preventive action to avoid what he calls their “Brexit-moment.” They should really work toward avoiding the moment when misinformation takes over and twist the future of the country, just like happened in the U.K.
“We need to strengthen democracy and do more and better fact-checking today,” he said. “Existing media could do it. But a preferable way to organize this would be to have an independent fact-checking institute with sustainable funding.”
Schenk, Pauwels and Jagers said they feel, however, that everything is “frozen in place.” Belgium had elections in May but hasn’t gotten a new federal government yet. The negotiations over a new coalition keep dragging on, pushing to the far future an announcement of an expected federal fund and/or the creation of a foundation that could dive deep into whatever is being said and shared on Belgians’ social media.
According to the 2018 Digital News Report, 13% of Belgians indicated they were exposed to “completely made-up news in the last week.” That’s more than Germans (9%). The same study revealed that last year, 65% of Belgians thought government should do more to separate what is real and fake on the internet. Schenk, Pauwels and Jagers said they can’t wait to see the European fact-checking map with Belgium in it.
Cristina Tardáguila is the associate director of the International Fact-Checking Network and the founder of Agência Lupa, in Brazil. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.