Fact-checkers are no longer a fresh-faced movement. They're fighting for the future of the internet.
The International Fact-Checking Network's fifth annual Global Fact-Checking Summit kicked off Wednesday in Rome. Here are IFCN Director Alexios Mantazarlis' opening remarks from the conference.
Hi everyone! Welcome to Global Fact and welcome to Rome.
How you all doing?
If you ask me, I’m feeling all kinds of old as we open the fifth — fifth! — edition of Global Fact in, of all places, my former high school. And this, just a couple of days after I introduced my baby daughter to her great-grandparents.
If five years feel like a long time in general, they are a geological era when it comes to the community of fact-checkers. Every two years, this conference has doubled in size — roughly reflecting the growth in fact-checking projects launched around the world.
But it’s more than about the raw numbers. It’s the role fact-checkers are playing today that is totally different.
When I was running Pagella Politica, I would often stress that we were a ragtag army. “Nove scappati di casa,” for those of you who speak Italian. Understaffed and underfinanced, all we had going for us was a compelling format and a desire to change the rules of public discourse.
What was true of Pagella was true of the rest of the community.
In fact — it still is.
Of the forty-two IFCN verified fact-checkers here today, twenty-six operated with a budget of $100,000 or less in 2017. The total number of full-time employees working for those fact-checking projects last year was 229, almost precisely the same as the total number of participants of this conference.
These figures obviously don’t capture every fact check published on the planet. 15 signatories are not represented here today. Many non-signatories are also doing great fact-checking work. But say these numbers only capture 50% of the ecosystem. Say we doubled these figures. It might not be a ragtag army — but it’s not quite Attila and the Huns either.
What has changed most since the first Global Fact isn’t therefore the number of active fact-checkers. It’s the role they play.
In Brazil, Italy, Spain, at the EU level and in many other places, fact-checkers have been called to advise policy-makers on the challenge of misinformation. Around the globe, fact checks are highlighted on the internet’s main search engine. In fourteen countries, fact-checkers have the power to downrank false stories on the largest social network in history. This last collaboration has been questioned by politicians in Congress and the European Parliament.
Our clout has grown much faster than our numbers have.
We will talk about this increased clout in several sessions over the next few days. More importantly, we’ll discuss how we can make sure we are being kept accountable for this increased prominence.
We will also hear from fact-checkers who have had to deal with humanitarian crises and journalists who can best quantify the scale of the Russian disinformation campaign. We’ll discuss what to do about deepfakes and whether we should be fact-checking what public opinion gets wrong rather than what politicians get wrong.
As with every Global Fact, the most important part is not what’s on the agenda but who’s in the room. You’ll notice that the booklet you were handed this morning is primarily composed of all your names and stories. 225 participants from 55 countries. This conference was set up to help fact-checkers learn from one another and find ways to collaborate. As we grow our numbers, we want to make sure those collaborations can still happen at Global Fact.
For that reason, we’ve multiplied the number of Show & Tell sessions, introduced assemblies meant to be opportunities to brainstorm as a large group and opened up the agenda to as many small group workshops as we could.
I’d like to take this opportunity to thank my team for their great work throughout the course of the year. Though Dulce has been with us in the past, this is both her and Daniel’s first Global Fact as IFCN staff. Every improvement you might see is due to them.
We hope you’ll find plenty of new and useful in this conference, even though competition is getting tough. Five years ago, there were no journalism conferences dedicated to our field. Today, it seems like all of them are.
Still, I hope that both the old-timers and the newcomers will find that it is unique. Not because of who organized it but because of who is attending. Global Fact is of the fact-checkers and for the fact-checkers.
Global Fact is a good moment to get inspired by each other but also to take stock of how the entire fact-checking movement is doing.
And that’s a tricky exercise.
For all the new funding, new projects and new hires I think we’re actually in the most delicate moment for our form of journalism since its reinvention for the digital age in 2003.
A dark cloud hangs over us. The disaffection and distrust that have plagued mainstream media outlets for many years is now spilling over to fact-checkers. In Turkey, the Philippines and especially Brazil it broke out in the form of concerted campaigns aimed to vilify fact-checking as an instrument.
In the U.S., the culture wars that animate every part of public life increasingly dominate attitudes to fact-checkers. In this continent, misguided efforts by Europhiles to contain Russian propaganda conflate Eurosceptic opinions with “fake news” and risk yielding the same polarizing effect on perceptions of fact-checking.
Fact-checking has changed in many ways since the first Global Fact. We have developed new formats, codified our methodologies, become more tech-savvy. For the most part, we no longer need to explain what our job is, like we did five years ago.
But the change that I want to draw your attention to is another one.
Fact-checkers are no longer the fresh-faced journalistic reform movement pushed forward by the tailwinds of positive expectations. We are wrinkly arbiters of a take-no-prisoners war for the future of the internet.
And yet I think that in too many ways we still behave like in those early days when we were an experiment. When our good qualities were refreshing and our bad ones part of the learning curve.
We can’t play the young and scrappy card anymore. We need to ask ourselves important questions. And if the answers to those questions are not satisfactory we need to think long and deep about how our reform movement might need to reform itself. The questions that are in my mind are the following:
→ Are we effective enough at keeping public figures accountable?
→ Are we doing enough to correct ourselves?
→ Are we doing enough to dispel concerns about bias?
→ Are we equipped to reassert the primacy of facts in the face of political movements that are inherently suspicious — at the time with good reason — of the fact-generating institutions we rely on?
→ Are we truly taking advantage of this network of fact-checkers to build collaborations larger than the sum of our parts?
→ Are we putting in place mechanisms to ensure that our delegated powers over Google and Facebook don’t have unintended consequences?
My sense is that the answer to most of these questions is not a resounding “Yes.” In part, that is because these are awesome challenges and enough will never be enough. But that shouldn’t absolve us from trying harder. We chose this line of business for ourselves.
This might sound like an oddly sobering way to start a conference. And it’s definitely why I asked Bill to go after me. I’m pretty sure he can pick up your dangerously sagging moods.
But this really is just a call to action.
Let’s take these three days to unplug from the day-by-day aspects of fact-checking and think about its systemic consequences. Let’s use this incredible collection of smart people, of passionate people, and find creative fixes to our problems and theirs.
Because honestly, if this group can’t help make the information disorder problem a little less terrible, if this group can’t clean up this mess that we’re in, who will?
Legislators? Those same people whose accuracy we question daily and whose goals might be more than a little self-serving?
Elon Musk and his fellow travelers? The shitshow of terrible ideas emerging from Silicon Valley types who think they’ve got it all figured out? The AI-Koolaid-drinking enthusiasts who promise plugins that — and I quote — “automatically determine the trustworthiness of any news webpage, in seconds.”?
No! It’s not going to be any of them.
It’s going to be the organizations who’ve been doing this for years. Who subject themselves to standards of accuracy and transparency. Organizations that realize the trouble that we’re all in and the difficulty of getting out of it.
We might be understaffed and underfinanced. But we’re not short on ideas and experience.
And one more thing.
I hope this doesn’t seem like I am pandering to the zeitgeist too much, especially as a white dude. But I can’t help but notice that power in the fact-checking niche is better distributed by gender than in other parts of journalism.
The editor of the only Pulitzer-prize winning fact-checking website is a woman. The director of the largest fact-checking project in Latin America is a woman, as are two out of three of the editors of Brazil’s fact-checking projects. The most prominent anchor to have espoused fact-checking on TV is a woman.
My rough estimate — this needs to be fact-checked — is that almost two out of five IFCN verified signatories have a female editor or director. Parity this is not. There’s plenty of space to improve. But it gives us a more solid footing to build credible and sustainable solutions moving forward.
To wrap up, I hope we can get two things out of these three days together.
The first is a new commitment to increase our own accountability in line with our more prominent role vis-a-vis the platforms and policy-makers.
The second is a new commitment to cross-border collaboration that can increase the reach and impact of our work.
This is a perfect place to pass the baton off to the next speaker.
I’m going to leave the floor to the innately optimistic dean of global fact-checking.
The man without whom we’d still be at Global Fact 0.
Please put your hands together for Bill Adair.
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