March 3, 2021

Fact-checkers speaking at the second IFCN Talks session Wednesday night had a clear message — don’t rely on Big Tech. Diego Canabarro, senior regional policy manager at the Internet Society in Brazil who attended the session as an audience member, crystallized this sentiment, typing that fact-checkers should not be “hostages of Big Tech.”

The conversation took place in the wake of Facebook’s Australian news ban that saw the platform block all news content for its Australian users for one week while the company and the Australian government duked it out over proposed legislation.

“It was very much a situation where fact-checking was caught up as collateral damage in a much bigger fight that was going on between the government and between the digital platforms,” said Peter Bodkin, fact check editor for the Australian Associated Press. Bodkin admitted his organization doesn’t rely too heavily on sharing its content on Facebook but said the move expedited efforts in the company to diversify distribution streams.

“In a way, it’s been a positive development here, because it’s given people a shake and made them realize if they were extremely dependent on Facebook for distribution. That plug can be pulled,” Bodkin said. “I think the lesson isn’t to rely too much on any one distribution channel, particularly one you don’t have control over.”

Tania Montalvo, editorial director at the Mexican fact-checking organization Animal Político, added to Bodkin’s point, saying, “In fact, I think that people are actually asking us to do that, you know, like to be multi-platform multi-format, and to communicate in different ways.”

Montalvo also said that social media companies could do a better job of explaining to their users what fact-checkers do and how their work factors into content moderation decisions.

“We need to know exactly why an account was suspended, and what is happening, because it’s not always clear,” she said. Montalvo added that fact-checkers sometimes face harassment from social media users who accuse them of censoring their content.

“I don’t have the power over Facebook to say ‘eliminate your post.’ It’s not what we’re doing,” Montalvo said. She added that in Mexico these accusations sometimes get tied up in charged political rhetoric about whether fact-checkers sufficiently support the current ruling government.

But neither let fact-checkers entirely off the hook. Montalvo said fact-checkers can do a better job explaining their work to help the audience understand what fact-checkers actually do.

“When we are not transparent, I think we are giving in to the impulse that we are fact-checking only because we are against a politician or only against a regime,” Montavalo said. She added the fact-checking community can often be insular and needs to do a better job reaching out.

“If I’m saying that something is false because I used this methodology, we need to clearly say this to the reader so they can follow it the same way and reach the same conclusion,” Montalvo said. Panel moderator and IFCN associate director Cristina Tardáguila agreed, recounting a story about confronting a Brazillian politician who wanted to regulate fact-checking without knowing much about it.

Bodkin said it’s important for fact-checkers to advocate for the importance of their work with the public and policymakers to both cut down on these misconceptions and allow fact-checking organizations to better contribute to the information ecosystem.

“We want to share that expertise and make sure that people understand the potential impacts of something they may be doing,” he said.

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Harrison Mantas is a reporter for the International Fact-Checking Network covering the wide world of misinformation. He previously worked in Arizona and Washington D.C. for…
Harrison Mantas

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