Can fact-checkers teach future world leaders to lie less?
"96 million really wanting a job and they can’t get (it). You know that story. The real number — that’s the real number."
But what if someone could stop a world leader during a speech and demand proof? It may be an arduous task with Trump, but perhaps not for the future crop of world leaders.
That thinking motivated Argentinian website Chequeado to inject fact-checking into multiple Model United Nations simulations in Buenos Aires.
In the simulations, students assume the roles of ambassadors and represent their assigned nation's interest in debates about major world issues. Tens of thousands of students from all over the world participate in Model U.N. each year.
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Normally, the strategies of teenagers attending the Model U.N. conferences are long on rhetoric but short on facts, said Ariel Merpert, education coordinator at Chequeado.
"Some of the things we see at these simulations — politicians saying almost anything and exacerbating irrational beliefs — are precisely the ones we criticize in the 'adult world.'"
To deal with this issue, Chequeado joined forces with Asociación Civil MINU, a local organization that coordinates Model U.N. conferences for thousands of high school students, and modified the rules of the game. Three changes were made to the traditional simulation:
- A fictional media outlet was allowed to participate.
- Coordinators picked a group of teenagers and assigned them to be journalists at this simulated media outlet, training them on how to fact-check politicians.
- The other participants were given tools to help ground their speeches in facts.
So, for instance, students taking on the role of country representatives could ask the Model U.N. president to order the fact-checking of a delegate’s statements — the way they would raise an objection at a deposition. Delegates who were sure their claims were based on solid facts could also request the president to review their statements.
The new method was first tried during a Model U.N. conference at the Di Tella University in Buenos Aires in mid-July and twice since. In total, more than 1,200 students participated in these conferences. According to MINU, the results were remarkable.
"At first the students were surprised, even skeptical," said Martin Galanternik, founder and director of Asociación Civil MINU. "They thought of it as some kind of external control that could lead to embarrassing moments. "But at the next meetings, they practiced seeing it as a positive challenge. Some of them even tried to use the fact-checking system in their favor."
While some received "True" ratings, others were struck by warnings from the fact-checking group.
In one of the Buenos Aires simulations organized by MINU, a student delegate representing Angola claimed slavery was "over" in his country — something which turned out to be far from true.
The fact-checking team also corrected a young representative of Spain who claimed his country was "one of the few European nations giving shelter to refugees" despite figures from the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees indicating otherwise.
Merpert sees a clear difference between the debates at traditional Model U.N. conferences, which had more to do with rhetoric, and the new experiment.
"It’s a world apart," Merpert said. "Now it was about facts and data."
One participant said she gained valuable experience by trying to persuade the delegates to focus on real statistics and less on cheap talk.
"I learned how it was to be 'on the other side' — in journalist mode," she said. "It was striking."
The ongoing project is called "Chequeado+: el futuro del debate" (the future of debate) because of its ambitious long-term goal of educating the new generation of government leaders.
The reasoning sounds plausible: Teenagers participating in Model U.N. conferences often end up pursuing a career in politics, diplomacy or public policy. Getting them acquainted with fact-checking tools while insisting that evidence does matter could help improve public debates in years to come.
So, can this small-scale model be extended to other areas of political science?
"It would be great to replicate this model, but we need to take into account that the Model U.N. is based on a fiction," says Guillermo Mastrini, a communications professor at the University of Buenos Aires. "The discussion changes completely when real power enters the equation."
According to Mastrini, "during a U.N. simulation, one could revise their own position when confronted with facts. But in real life, countries first adopt a position and then go look for arguments to back it up."
But there’s still hope: We know that at least some politicians faced with the threat of being fact-checked are less likely to make false claims. That's one of the things that makes fact-checking a valuable asset these days, said Laura Zommer, executive director of Chequeado.
“Post-truth politicians like Donald Trump have always been around," Zommer says. "That is why determining the veracity of information is a very potent tool."
This continues to be the bet at Chequeado, whose staff expects to expand the project to four more Argentine provinces in 2017.