Fact-check the fact-checkers. Just don't vilify them.

Online misinformation and political polarization are infecting democratic discourse across the globe. In Brazil, the intensity of the latter might get in the way of solutions to the former.

Last week, Facebook announced that it would launch its third-party fact-checking tool in the country. Its partners — Agência Lupa and Aos Fatos — have access to a dedicated dashboard through which they can fact-check links flagged by users and by Facebook’s algorithm as potentially false. Fact-checkers must provide a public article listing all their evidence.

This positive development was met by an intense backlash. Personal attacks have been leveled against fact-checkers and their families. Aos Fatos’ co-founder had the temerity of publishing a positive status about interracial harmony and was attacked as a “typical millennial SJW.” Other fact-checkers who don’t have a public profile are accused of hiding nefarious secrets. Even Agência Pública, whose fact-checking operation "Truco" is not a Facebook partner, saw its staffers harassed on social media.

I have followed the attacks with growing concern. My organization, the International Fact-Checking Network, runs an extensive verification process, relying on local journalism experts, to assess fact-checkers around the world according to twelve criteria. These include transparency of funding (organizations need to share their budgets with the public), of methodology (fact-checkers need to explain how they rate claims) and an honest and transparent corrections policy.

Unsurprisingly, some of the accusations also need fact-checking. One tweeter (with 20 thousand followers) found that one of my colleagues had the hashtag #LeftyLivesMatter in her Twitter bio and determined that she was an “ATIVISTA POLÍTICA DE ESQUERDA ESCANCARADA” (overt left-wing political activist). Except the hashtag refers to left-handed people, not politics.

Aos Fatos, Lupa and Truco passed this verification process twice already. Their applications and the assessor’s evaluation are all public on our website.

Part of this reaction probably derives from insufficient communication about the initiative.

The type of stories that are being flagged through Facebook’s tool are fabricated drivel, not political opinions. Here are a few examples of stories flagged by fact-checkers on Facebook elsewhere in the world:

  • In the United States: “Donald Trump dead from a fatal heart attack!" (He isn’t.)

  • In Italy: “Jealous girl cuts boyfriend’s testicles with a chainsaw” (Nope.)

  • In France: “Two college students made a terrifying discovery about WiFi” (Hardly.)

Several commenters called fact-checkers censors. This misunderstands their role. They annotate posts and Facebook down ranks them on News Feed so they can’t go viral. But nothing is removed. Ironically, those accusing Facebook and the fact-checkers of censorship are doing so with videos and posts doing very well on...Facebook! The equivalent would be me using this post to accuse Poynter of silencing my voice.

Citizens are right to be vigilant about free speech and the power of Facebook. This is why I have regularly gone on the record asking the social network to share data about the results of the tool — long before it came to Brazil. It is a shared position among IFCN signatories that the platform and its fact-checking partners must be held accountable for their work just as they hold public figures accountable for their words.

It is why both Aos Fatos and Lupa — and all fact-checkers that are verified signatories of the IFCN — have open corrections policies. If they make mistakes through this Facebook tool, affected pages can reach out and request a correction.

Aos Fatos, Lupa and Truco are conscientious fact-checking projects. Since 2015, the organizations have fact-checked all sides of the Brazilian debate.

Too often, attacks on fact-checkers seem politically motivated rather than based in genuine dissent. One political group that is now accusing the fact-checkers of being “leftists” is the same that in 2016 sent Truco a photo of a penis with “Check This” when politely asked to provide evidence for a claim made. 

An organized campaign to discredit the very instrument is afoot and it risks further reducing our capacity to distinguish true from false online.

This is about more than individual fact-checkers. It’s about facts in public discourse. Facts matter — but we must stand up for them.

This article was updated to mention attacks directed against Agência Pública.

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