January 1, 2021

Once a niche practice within journalism, fact-checking is now a household name thanks to a year with a deadly pandemic and important elections in many parts of the world.

To fulfill our responsibility to advocate and push for higher standards in fact-checking, the International Fact-Checking Network announced an update to the set of criteria attached to our Code of Principles earlier this spring, and a recent update to our transparency statement in our bylaws and an expanded advisory board. (Our annual transparency document for the Code of Principles process for 2020 can be also found here.)

2020 has likely been the most chaotic year in the 21st century and certainly an overwhelming one for fact-checkers. The coronavirus pandemic not only shook the world in an unprecedented way, but it also redesigned how fact-checkers work, how we learn from one another and, most importantly, how we collaborate not only locally but globally.

IFCN’s very own CoronaVirusFacts Alliance brought together 99 fact-checking organizations from 77 countries and built the largest repository of fact checks on the first-ever infodemic. The collaborative project maintains its database as a resource to the broader journalistic community, to researchers, and — obviously — to ordinary users via chatbots we launched in English, Spanish, Portuguese and Hindi.

As a testament to the transformative nature of 2020, IFCN was able to raise multiple millions of U.S. dollars from internet companies to support innovative and collaborative fact-checking projects to tackle falsehoods traveling on those very same platforms. While those efforts are not necessarily good enough to tackle our information quality problems, we have every reason to be cautiously optimistic about the future of fact-checking and it’s increasing relevancy for those who are growingly becoming our modern agoras.

More than 50 organizations from 21 countries received support to help people separate facts from fiction online and empower fact-checkers to drive positive change in platforms’ attitudes towards addressing mis/disinformation.

Recalling participants’ feedback from the first-ever virtual Global Fact conference we organized this summer, the crossroads role of fact-checkers is now recognized as being at the intersection of information and technology. That is inevitably followed by a big set of responsibilities and attacks, with accusations of censorship coming from different fronts.

Just a few days before we farewell this unforgettable year, here are some takes on 2020 and some predictions for the state of fact-checking in 2021.

Medical mis/disinformation will be at the center of fact-checkers’ focus.

In the pre-pandemic world, fact-checkers had already been paying attention to health-related mis/disinformation. In Cape Town, South Africa, during Global Fact 6 in June 2019, I personally had the opportunity to moderate a panel on health and science-focused fact-checking.

Immediately after receiving early signals from Chinese-speaking fact-checkers in our network, my colleague Cristina Tardáguila did not hesitate to facilitate the largest collaborative effort in the history of fact-checking — if not in the history of journalism — by launching the CoronaVirusFacts Alliance. Eventually recognized as a groundbreaking effort by esteemed initiatives such as the Paris Peace Forum, it became a go-to resource for everyone in the fight against mis/disinformation.

Now that we are surrounded by promising news about COVID-19 vaccines, it is clear that 2021 will again be a year for fact-checkers to focus on health topics, debunk dangerous claims that can cause real-life harm, help people access reliable and authoritative information and make sense out of it, and stop the spread of falsehoods at the community level by providing essential signals to networks.

We will need to fight back against those who portray fact-checking as censorship.

One of the driving forces of the rise of fact-checking has been the eagerness of tech platforms to work directly with fact-checkers. Facebook’s Third-Party Fact-Checking Program includes more than 80 partners publishing in some 60 languages and has become the largest effort to tackle mis/disinformation at internet scale.

Over the last four years, fact-checkers have checked countless stories — Facebook has never provided specific number but shared some metrics during the first couple of months of the pandemic — circulating on the platform, providing the company with critical input to inform users about false information and gradually reduce the reach of such content.

Such relevance and publicity meant upset groups and publishers went after fact-checkers and campaigned that “fact-checking is censorship.” This happened because fact-checkers are easier targets than those big platforms and because the tech companies have failed to communicate how fact-checking works within their content moderation practices.

So many fact-checking organizations working with Facebook, for example, have been accused of censoring publishers and even politicians despite the fact that Facebook doesn’t allow fact-checkers to assess claims by political actors (with the caveat that they might be fact-checked if they share a previously fact-checked piece of content).

Regardless of the complexity of defining political actors in a globally applicable way, fact-checkers being accused and attacked for something they are not actually able to do on a massive platform like Facebook is an example of the importance of clear messaging. The program is noble but neither by the company itself nor the participating fact-checkers feel comfortable bragging about it due to the attacks coming from various sides.

In order to discredit such accusations and attacks, we will keep promoting higher standards of accountability and transparency for fact-checkers through our Code of Principles while ensuring fact-checkers get access to legal support to mitigate the risks associated with their work. The Fact-Checkers Legal Support Initiative has been an integral part of our efforts to support the community during their challenging times.

Apart from the threats and attacks they experience due to their work, fact-checkers will need to be better communicators and serve as truth-tellers and bridge-builders in their communities. I’ve been personally impressed with fact-checkers organizing their offline communities against misinformation in Ghana, Indonesia, Nigeria and in many other countries where the odds are stacked against them. We will keep monitoring such initiatives to bring that expertise back to the rest of the world to increase our capacity to tackle such false accusations and smear campaigns.

Collaboration will keep playing a vital role in fighting any type of mis/disinformation.

Initiated during the first couple of weeks of January this year, IFCN’s CoronaVirusFacts Alliance achieved the world’s biggest collaboration between fact-checkers. It spans almost two dozens time zones and relies on early warnings, notifications between fact-checkers and the building of fact check databases.

During a pandemic, combating mis/disinformation is crucial to public health. Just like the virus itself, rumors and falsehoods flow over borders, causing what is now called a universal infodemic. Our international collaboration is essential in this battle. The database of almost 10,000 fact checks is now the best source an individual can access when questioning information about the novel coronavirus.

In 2021, we will see more emphasis on the importance of collaboration — not just between fact-checkers, but also among health authorities, academia and storytellers — to tackle vaccine misinformation and surrounding implications of our fragile information ecosystem.

Fact-checking will offer services to more stakeholders in different forms.

Just four years and one month ago, the International Fact-Checking Network sent an open letter to Mark Zuckerberg to address the misinformation problem at Facebook. Not so long after that outreach, Facebook and IFCN shepherded the largest effort to combat misinformation at internet scale by launching the Third-Party Fact-Checking Program.

The program has remained the most comprehensive and impactful partnership between a tech company and fact-checkers.

In 2020 particularly, we have seen more and more tech companies turning their attention to fact-checkers to navigate the challenges they can no longer ignore given the acute impact of the infodemic on our information quality.

The IFCN, as the umbrella organization for fact-checkers around the world, facilitated this by partnering for the first time or building on existing partnerships with Google, Facebook, WhatsApp and YouTube. Throughout a number of grant calls, more than 60 fact-checking organizations have received support to experiment and deliver innovative solutions to fact-checking. Many of these organizations inspired others during our virtual Global Fact this summer.

Building on their gained knowledge and experience from working with fact-checkers, tech companies will continue turning to them, not only to share funds for innovative projects but also to establish sustainable business models to get expert review and input on their content moderation pipelines.

A group that was once some 20 organizations spread around a handful of countries that met once a year to exchange ideas and build momentum today has turned into a community — institutionally stronger and more experienced at working with tech companies and providing them with essential signals and help to scale quality information across platforms.

Fact-checkers are stronger when they act together

Throughout the last couple of years, particularly with the growth in the number of fact-checking organizations, the need for collective decision-making became more crucial for fact-checkers’ larger role to fight for the future of the internet, as my predecessor and IFCN’s founding director Alexios Mantzarlis timely pointed out during Global Fact 5 in Rome two years ago.

To fulfill that mission and address the need for collective decision-making, we have initiated a yearlong effort with Full Fact and Maldita that provides resources to facilitate structured conversations within our community. The goal is to surface common positions around our work, the data we produce, and the partnerships we have with our stakeholders.

Of the more than 40 verified signatories that we have surveyed so far with Full Fact’s Phoebe Arnold (a former IFCN advisory board member), an overwhelming majority made it very clear that tech companies need to compensate the work of fact-checkers given the value of and need for accurate and authoritative information on such large networks.

Our chatbot experiments on the COVID-19 pandemic and the U.S. presidential elections have demonstrated that surfacing fact checks from a group of credible fact-checking organizations has the potential to expand the reach of our work — from traditional mediums to messaging apps, where misinformation can spread fast and unnoticed during fast news cycles.

Building on such experiments, fact-checkers need to invest in exploring ways to scale their work, counter misinformation at its origin and determine the future of their work from a business sustainability perspective.

In 2021, the International Fact-Checking Network will put more emphasis on bringing different voices from the community together and relaying that feedback to the broader community to make informed decisions pertaining to our future sustainability.

In conclusion

If I need to underscore one takeaway from 2020, for me it’s that preparing and monitoring capacity for global incidents of mis/disinformation are crucial. It can only serve our purpose of pursuing an informed debate through collaboration and collective response. Fact-checkers will need to push for more collaboration among tech companies, researchers, public institutions and other stakeholders to address such incidents effectively and globally.

Whatever the next year has in store for us, we need to be ready to lead this effort as the fact-checking community through more conversation followed by collective action.

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Baybars Örsek is the director of the International Fact-Checking Network (IFCN) at The Poynter Institute, the premier global coalition of fact-checking organizations. Prior to joining…
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