When the Mongolian Fact Checking Center began in March 2020 to expand the fact-checking movement to Mongolia’s populace, it also exposed founder and editor-in-chief Dulamkhorloo Baatar to a new set of standards for fact-checking. While she had done basic fact-checking as a journalist in Mongolia before, it wasn’t as rigorous as the work she and her team are doing now.
“As an editor, I personally used to think giving a politician a second call was a way to check a fact,” Baatar said. “But it opened up way more opportunities that we didn’t know existed before.”
Baatar and her team used Poynter’s fact-checking classes to familiarize themselves with a slew of new digital tools and techniques to fight online falsehoods. Tools like Google’s advanced search and reverse image search helped the fact-checkers expand their skill sets.
“Most of the sources we were getting information from were people and their word of mouth, so we wanted to be able to check what they were saying,” Baatar said. She said culturally, word-of-mouth information is largely seen as trustworthy in Mongolia and that a lack of research makes it difficult to assess misinformation’s impact.
Anecdotally, Baatar said she’s seen misinformation’s most detrimental impacts have come from false COVID-19 cures and phishing scams that steal people’s personal data to con others into giving them money.
“You lost your Facebook password or your account was hacked, and your friend thought it was you and they loaned you money, but actually it was someone else,” Baatar said, giving an example of a phishing scam. “So these are the material consequences that you’re actually feeling.”
Lead fact-checker Battsetseg Enkhtaivan said she’s seen the impacts of misinformation firsthand after hearing her mother and sisters repeat false statements that COVID-19 vaccines were just experimental Chinese treatments being tested on Mongolians without proper safety checks.
“They consciously decided not to get vaccinated because of that, and they were the first people in my family to get sick with COVID,” Enkhtaivan said. “I tried to convince them, but I simply couldn’t because their belief was so firmly planted.”
Enkhtaivan said her family became more receptive to fact-checked information after experiencing the realities of COVID-19.
“The way to go forward now is without hurrying, but by making small victories in convincing people to consume more trustworthy information from trusted sources, and use science-backed information to make decisions,” Enkhtaivan said.
Baatar said that while the practice and impacts of misinformation are not new to Mongolia, the concept can be difficult to translate for everyday people.
“We don’t have a Mongolian word for (misinformation),” Baatar said. She noted that there is a nuance between information that is false and information that has a kernel of truth but takes it out of context. “When you mistranslate that, it has a negative impact on the awareness-raising we’re trying to do.”
Enkhtaivan said they’ve also run into challenges with claims pertaining to traditional Mongolian culture. For example, the Mongolian Ministry of Health put out an advisory that citizens should refrain from committing the 10 sins of Buddhist morality to avoid catching COVID-19.
“It’s very difficult to explain how not doing sins won’t help prevent COVID,” Enkhtaivan said. “Those kinds of culture-specific things are difficult to fact check.”
Baatar said they typically don’t check those kinds of claims, but noted the irony that lying or engaging in false speech is one of the 10 Buddhist sins the health department advised Mongolians to abstain from.
Mongolia also still has a sizable nomadic population. Baatar said it is difficult for both fact-checkers and traditional media to reach them with verified information. She noted that Facebook is widely used in the country and the fact check center’s Facebook page gets significantly more traffic than its standalone site.
Baatar said she would like to train some of Mongolia’s 500 media organizations in basic fact-checking to help expand the practice across the country. For now, she said her focus is on building up the center’s workforce of fact-checkers to expand its fact-checking output.