Fact-checkers are helpers, not saviors, in the information wars

This is the September 3, 2020 edition of Factually

September 3, 2020 and
Category: Fact-Checking,IFCN

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

On fact-checking and fruitlessness

The remarkable performance of CNN’s Daniel Dale after the Republican National Convention last week – where in three minutes he summarily debunked 21 of President Donald Trump’s falsehoods – brought fresh attention to the art of fact-checking.

It was, wrote the Washington Post’s Margaret Sullivan, “a tour de force of fact-checking that left CNN anchor Anderson Cooper looking slightly stunned.” Sullivan described Dale as a national treasure (not the first time he’s been given that title).

The fact-check also inspired a profile of Dale from The Daily Beast’s Lloyd Grove and stories in Mashable and HuffPost Canada (Dale is Canadian). He appeared Sunday on Brian Stelter’s CNN show, Reliable Sources.

But, as is often the case when it comes to fact-checking, the new attention also prompted a discussion about whether fact-checking is making any kind of difference given the current firehose of falsehoods, many of them from the White House.

“More and more, fact-checkers seem to be trying to bail out an ancient, rusty and sinking freighter with the energetic use of measuring cups and thimbles,” Sullivan wrote. The headline on her piece was “Fact-checking Trump’s lies is essential. It’s also increasingly fruitless.”

Fact-checking may not be changing a lot of minds in today’s entrenched, polarized society, but Sullivan’s freighter metaphor seemed to put an awful lot of pressure on fact-checkers. They’re not solely responsible for keeping the ship afloat in a sea of falsehoods — we all are.

Perhaps a better metaphor would be one of fact-checkers as a bucket brigade — handing out pails, inadequate as they may be in a tsunami of lies, to the people who are (or should be) doing the bailing. That includes other journalists, politicians, people sitting at the dinner table with their QAnon-believing cousin and anyone who encounters falsehoods on social media. In other words, maybe we should look at the fact-checker as a helper in the crisis of misinformation, not a savior.

Asked by Stelter about the suggestion of fruitlessness, Dale said he is “just more optimistic” about fact-checking’s value. The point, he said, is to make people more informed, adding that a journalist’s job is to “stand up for the truth.”

His appearance can be found here, with the “fruitless” question and his response starting at the 00:58 mark.

– Susan Benkelman, API

. . . technology

  • Facebook and Twitter took down a network of fake accounts operated by a faux web-site called Peace Data that is designed to look like a liberal news outlet. The group, Facebook said, also recruited journalists to write for them and used AI-generated “personas” to direct people to the site from social media.
    • One freelance journalist told NBC News that he wrote for the site not knowing it was run by Russian disinformation agents. “I lost my job during COVID and was pretty desperate to earn money just to pay rent,” the journalist told the network, asking not to be named.
  • Twitter removed an account that pretended to be from a Black Lives Matter protester who said he was abandoning the Democratic Party and supporting President Trump.  The Washington Post reported that the episode was an example of disinformation campaigns aimed at Black voters in an effort to exacerbate racial division in the United States.
    • NBC News’ Ben Collins wrote that language from posts claiming to be from African Americans abandoning the Democratic party had been widely copied and pasted by other accounts. The platform told him that such “copypasta” has been on the rise recently.

. . . politics

  • A number of manipulated videos designed to hurt Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden were flagged on social media platforms this week. They include one that made it look as if the former vice president was sleeping in a television interview. (It wasn’t real.)
    • CNN’s Donie O’Sullivan and Daniel Dale had a good rundown of the manipulations and what the platforms are doing — or not doing — about them.
  • Mainstream outlets in Ghana are taking a greater interest in fact-checking ahead of the country’s presidential election in December, Poynter reported.
    • National outlets are developing programming dedicated to fact-checking, and fact-checkers are being invited onto national programs to verify political claims in real time.

. . . science and health

  • German fact-checking organization Correctiv reported on a network of scientists, lawyers and YouTubers spreading COVID-19 disinformation across Germany.
    • The Bavaria-based Doctors and Scientists for Health, Freedom and Democracy has promoted falsehoods about mask use and distributed fake “mask exemption” certificates.

 

We’ve seen an increase in the number of fact-checks relating to crowd sizes at anti-COVID-19 restriction protests in Germany, England, and South Korea, but this week we are highlighting a fact-check from Agence France-Press about a supposed video from a protest in Seoul last month.

AFP was able to show through a reverse image search that the video was shot in October 2019. The fact-check used contemporaneous news reports to show the large crowd was gathered to protest former Minister of Justice Cho Kuk. (Thousands of people did gather in Seoul’s Gwanghwamun Square around the time the video surfaced, but as AFP noted, many participants in those protests against President Moon Jae-in’s policies were wearing masks.)

AFP’s fact-check took the extra step of using context clues hidden in the video to prove it was shot in October 2019. The fact-checkers spotted a billboard in the original video. Using Google’s Street View they identified the building as the Kyobo Tower. The building’s website keeps a list of the advertisements displayed on its billboard, and AFP was able to match the billboard in the video to one that was on the tower between September and November 2019.

What we liked: This fact-check is part of a series debunking falsehoods that used out-of-context images to inflate the size of crowds protesting measures aimed at halting the spread of COVID-19. What sets this fact-check apart is the step-by-step way it walks its readers through its process, and the lengths it goes to definitively prove the video was taken out of context.

– Harrison Mantas, IFCN

  1. Have you seen the daily Twitter posts from The New York Times’ Kevin Roose on Facebook’s top-performing pages? They are often from right-wing influencers, and Roose this week explained what this dominance from the right on Facebook means.
  2. Karen Hao at MIT Technology Review reported on online meme-makers who are creating deepfake videos for fun. They are now relatively harmless but “they may not stay that way for long,” she wrote.
  3. Poynter reported on how the Duke Reporters’ Lab used the national political conventions to perfect its automated fact-checking program Squash, and its human assistant, Gardener.
  4. USA Today wrote about how Qanon is radicalizing people amid the coronavirus pandemic.
  5. API has put together an email series on how reporters can best deliver truthful information to their audiences. Sign up here.

A correction from our Aug. 20 newsletter: An item about postal service misinformation incorrectly identified the location of the photo of stacked mailboxes. It was in Wisconsin, not New Jersey.

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Until next week,

Susan and Harrison