A French journalist is bringing fact checks to millions using Facebook Live and his own two feet
Julien Pain was tired of preaching to the choir.
After spending several years debunking viral fakes for France 24's Les Observateurs, Pain was on the lookout for a format that would expand the reach of his fact-checking.
"I realized I was only reaching people who agreed with me," says Pain. "And people who didn't check their information wouldn't be reading my fact-checking."
Since September, he has taken fact-checking to the streets in Facebook Live videos no longer than an hour. These are streamed from the account of his new employer, France Info. The videos also get pared down into three-minute "capsules" that air on both TV and social media.
Pain shows online hoaxes to pedestrians, asks for their thoughts, then gradually reveals that the information is false. In the comments section below, a community manager posts links to the fact checks mentioned in the video. She also sends Pain any comments he may want to address on air.
The appeal of the format — produced with the help of two camera operators and a sound engineer — emerges from viewer and host knowing that the content is fake before the passersby. The suspense comes from discovering how his unwitting guests will react.
But for Pain, the real advantage of this format, called "Instant Détox," is not its watchability but its transparency and reach.
"People can't tell me 'You've edited the video' or 'You didn't show me everything,'" he says.
"Through Facebook Live, I'm also reaching people who don't necessarily agree with me, I'm reaching far beyond my community."
Perhaps more important, at a time when journalists are asking themselves how to increase engagement and interaction with users, Pain has some tangible — if anecdotal — evidence that he is engaging.
In an episode debunking fake news about abortion, a midwife-in-training saw on Facebook that Pain was shooting near her, and she walked over to him during the live session to share what she knew from having assisted women undergoing abortions. The impromptu exchange offered an immediacy hard to match with traditional fact checks.
More recently — and less happily for Pain — a disgruntled onlooker in a café physically accosted the fact-checker and threatened to break his camera while he was broadcasting.
This latest incident occurred in Henin-Beaumont, a small northern town in what was historically a mining region. The city is governed by the far-right Front National; the cultural divide between Paris and small towns seems like it could play a role in the upcoming French presidential election like it did in the American one.
Pain's usual stomping grounds are the streets of Paris. But with the vote fast approaching, he decided to get out of the capital and shoot in Henin-Beaumont and Saint-Dizier, another small commune of less than 30,000 inhabitants.
In Henin-Beaumont, he shared sensational and satirical headlines debunked by the collaborative fact-checking project Crosscheck. In just under 57 minutes, he collected a broad variety of reactions.
The first woman Pain interviewed believed the fake news headline she was presented with but doesn't seem to mind being corrected. Later, a trade unionist asked the fact-checker to email him if he should share anything wrong on social media. Several respondents took this cautious approach, following along relatively passively as he makes his reveal.
Inevitably, some respondents go on unrelated tangents; others are less impressed with media debunking in general. One man says he doesn't trust the media to give him real information. Another says he doesn't care if a hoax about cannabis money funding the Front National isn't true — because political funding is always dubious. A woman towards the end suggests nefarious powers pay some journalists to report in a certain manner.
This points to a trait that is both a strength and a limitation of "Instant Détox." Pain is not seeking to end conversations having convinced his guests that a story was false. The end goal seems to be to have the actual conversation.
"Fake news is a good starting point that can help me talk about important points for French politics," he said.
Generally speaking, Pain didn't detect a substantial difference in people's attitudes while shooting his Live videos outside of Paris. The sort of reactions he received were similar, aggressive respondent notwithstanding. What struck him was something else.
"You realize that people outside of Paris don't live in the same way, they don't have the same schedule, which is not trivial," Pain said.
In Paris, he shoots his Live videos at 12.30 p.m., when many people take a break from work and hit the café for lunch. That makes it the perfect time to encounter potential interviewees. In Henin-Beaumont and Saint-Dizier, this was harder. People in smaller towns tend to go back home to eat, leaving Pain wandering for people to interview.
Barring monumental upsets, the French presidential election is certain to go to a second round in early May. Pain expects to continue debunking.
"For me, a journalist is a liar," blared the man who threatened to break Pain's camera in Henin-Beaumont.
If nothing else, with "Instant Détox" Pain isn't preaching to the choir anymore.