February 21, 2020

When you count yourself among the growing community of fact-checkers, you come across a new false story every day. From well-trodden conspiracies on climate science to creative but downright dangerous “beauty hacks” circulating on social media, there seems to be no end to the public imagination, and appetite for, rumors, gossip and myths. As the old phrase goes: A lie can travel halfway around the world while the truth is still getting its boots on.

Africa Check, Chequeado and Full Fact together started a research program to help the truth catch up. We wanted to find the best available academic evidence, and equip fact-checkers around the world with the tools to understand how misinformation travels, and what tactics work best to stop it. This is what we have started to find.

1. Fact-checking online means knowing how to strike a balance between grabbing attention and communicating information.

Millions of people around the world get their news online. Audiences in the Global South, and young readers in the Global North, get much of their information on social media — including Facebook, WhatsApp and other messaging apps.

To engage audiences online, it is important to make good use of visuals. Posts with pictures are twice as engaging than video posts, and four times more engaging that text-only posts.

Writing a good fact check is about much more than grabbing attention. It is also about giving readers the context to catch up with complex stories, and the clarity of language, and form, to ensure that conclusions don’t get drowned out by seductive but non-essential details.

When it comes to learning, a clear, jargon-free article that explains both what is wrong and why is still the best way to convey information. Read the briefings in English, French or Spanish to understand what fact-checkers can do to strike the balance between attention and learning.

2. Advanced age and modest levels of education limit audiences’ abilities to distinguish fact from opinion.  But we all have certain cognitive biases that influence what we believe.

Older adults and adults without college education find it harder to distinguish between fact and opinion. Seniors in particular experience difficulty in recalling details, even though they might remember the overall message of a story.

But this is where demographic shortcuts stop. We all find it harder to remember the source of stories we encounter on social media. We tend to believe rumors which are repeated, easy to process, and those which align with our existing worldviews. Above all, we all have a part to play in the quality of public debate.

Approximately one in two adults in the UK report seeing problematic content. We tend to share content that is new, political and emotionally charged, and do it even when we know it’s wrong. Worryingly, however, though one in two adults in the UK see something wrong, only one in five do something about it. This briefing set out to unpack what fact-checkers can do to mitigate the biases that drive the belief and sharing of misinformation.

3. The good news is that fact-checkers can contribute to a culture of accuracy.

Fact-checking is not just about correcting inaccurate claims. It is also about reaching out to stakeholders, with a view to creating a healthier information ecosystem in the long term.

There is good reason to believe that media and information literacy interventions can help audiences get more critical of the information they come across. Long-term classroom interventions with school children, or even just a 15-minute online game for adults, can make audiences better able to identify checkable claims, and more critical about the information they encounter.

Fact-checkers can also influence public figures by asking for corrections, and warning politicians of the potentially deleterious consequences of being found to have made a false claim.

You can learn more about how to engage general audiences and key public figures.

Where next?

We started this project to find out what research existed already, and to make it useful for fact-checkers around the world. Without a doubt, there are limitations to the evidence.  Much of the research is based in the United States, and is often conducted on student populations. While we strived to showcase regional evidence whenever this was possible, there is still a long way to go before the evidence base becomes representative of the diversity of fact-checkers’ audiences worldwide.

This is why we see these briefings as the beginning of a conversation. In the next few months, we will be working on other topics relevant to fact-checkers, such as how to communicate uncertainty, how to tackle health misinformation or address deeply entrenched claims.

Have a read, and let us know what you think.

Every piece of feedback will us nuance our recommendations, and bring research closer in line with fact-checkers’ needs. You can email us at research@fullfact.org, info@chequeado.com, or nicola@africacheck.org.

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