There's been an explosion of international fact-checkers, but they face big challenges
This is a lightly edited version of a speech delivered at Latam Chequea, the conference of Latin American fact-checkers organized by Chequeado on June 7 and 8.
Fact-checking in its current incarnation was kick-started in the United States with the launch of Factcheck.org in 2003 and popularized in this moment (go to 40:58).
Ironically, Cheney hadn’t fact-checked the domain name, so visitors to Factcheck.com found a site redirecting people to vote for his opponents.
It was again in the United States that fact-checking was recognized as a highly valued form of journalism, when the Pulitzer Prize went to PolitiFact in 2009. It can feel a little quaint now to read the citation mentioning “the power of the World Wide Web.”
In the past five or six years, however, the field has grown greatly and become markedly less Americanocentric. There are now more than 100 fact-checking projects active in approximately 40 countries. You can find fact-checkers in countries as different from one another as Australia and Mexico, India and Brazil, South Korea and Kenya.
Who are the fact-checkers of the world and how do they operate?
Their concentration resembles an inverted 7, covering the Americas and Europe quite densely and the other continents more sparsely.
This is very much a digital movement, with 80 percent of surveyed Global Fact 3 respondents publishing their content primarily online. This natural state of affairs has sometimes meant fact-checkers struggle to translate their content into good formats on other media, namely television.
Unfortunately, fact-checking has not turned anyone into a millionaire, at least for the moment. Almost three-quarters of the fact-checking projects represented at Global Fact operate with annual budgets of $100,000 or less.
The low cost of online distribution, the increasing availability of open data and growing distrust in mainstream media has meant many fact-checking projects originate from outside traditional journalism. In fact, a majority of non-U.S. fact-checking sites are run not by established media outlets but by civil society organizations.
This is the case for global leaders of the field, such as the UK’s Full Fact, Johannesburg-based Africa Check and Argentina’s Chequeado.
There are some more geographical peculiarities, besides the media/NGO divide — though we shouldn't belabor differences in such a relatively new movement.
In some younger democracies, particularly in Eastern Europe, fact-checking is seen as a tool by civil society organizations that seek to build accountability mechanisms and a culture of transparency.
In the Spanish-speaking world, fact-checking has often been adopted by those same organizations that are pursuing investigative reporting projects. This seems like an alliance with lots of potential: Fact-checkers could use more of the material investigative reporters unearth, and investigative reporters' work could get year-round and politically potent exposure through fact-checkers’ repeated referral.
Four organizations at Latam Chequea were reporting partners for the Panama Papers: Consejo de Redaccion, Efecto Cocuyo, Ojo Publico, Univision – of which three already run fact-checking initiatives namely Colombia Check, Ojo Bionico and Detector de Mentiras. The same can be said of the two Spanish Panama Paper partners El Objetivo and El Confidencial.
This seems an interesting when contrasted with the English-speaking world, where fact-checkers and investigative reporters are friendly but distinct.
If the movement has become less Americanocentric, this is particularly true in terms of some of the innovation in formats. Perhaps the most glaring example of this is how fact-checking in the States, despite gathering several million page views a month across the three main operations, has had a terrible run on television. Here’s one example:
Something may be changing, if this chyron CNN ran last week is anything to go by. But we are still very far away from global leaders like Spain’s El Objetivo.
The current election cycle in America is a good point of transition to discuss the impact of fact-checkers. This quote from PolitiFact editor Angie Holan, encapsulates perfectly the state of play:
One candidate is so calculated in how she parses facts, people see her at best as secretive and at worst as a liar. The other candidate is so careless with facts, people see him at best as an entertainer and at worst as a liar.
A lot have been worrying that this is not an American problem alone, that the proliferation of fake news and social media echo chambers mixed with fact-phobic candidates makes this a global issue of concern. Do we live in a post-fact world?
What we know about impact
So let's take a step back and ask ourselves: what do we know about the impact of fact-checking? We have seen concrete anecdotes of impact from all over the world.
Just to stay in Argentina, this is what then Vice Presidential candidate Gabriela Michetti had to say about a fact check by Chequeado:
Besides the anecdotes, research has shown that fact-checking can work.
In a field study from 2012, Brendan Nyhan of Dartmouth College and Jason Reifler of the University of Exeter looked at state-level legislators running for office in the US. They took about 1000 of them and divided them into three groups: One was told they’d be monitored by a standard news organization; the second that they’d be fact-checked and that false claims would be dissected publicly in an embarrassing manner; the third was a control group. Turns out the group that was told they’d be fact-checked had a significantly better track record in terms of truthful claims in the following months.
Moving on to readers and voters: they have been shown to overwhelmingly favor fact-checking. NPR polled loyal listeners last year to ask them what they most wanted from the radio network in terms of election coverage. 96 percent said they wanted fact-checking; that was second only to getting the actual results, and far higher than being continuously updated on the polls.
Now there is of course a difference between what readers say they want and what they actually consume.
Studies show facts can change minds. A study earlier this year from researchers at Cornell university, 30 percent of users of the Reddit channel /ChangeMyView actually changed their mind when presented with contradictory factual evidence.
Some of the resistance to factual correction may also be more for show than for real. A paper on the Quarterly Journal of Political Science last fall looked at partisan bias and factual beliefs.
It turns out that Democrats and Republicans will initially respond differently along partisan lines to factual questions like: how did the deficit do under President Clinton or did the military “surge” reduce deaths in Iraq. But this isn’t always the case. Once respondents were given a financial reward of just $1 for providing the right answer or selecting “I don’t know”, the partisan divide in factual beliefs is greatly reduced
And when readers are exposed to fact checks, they do react positively. In a study pending publication conducted last summer in Italy, Nyhan and Reifler found that readers exposed to fact checks have a more accurate factual understanding of the related claims than those who didn’t.
Key trends and challenges ahead
This is not to say fact-checkers are without challenges. Some are as old as human nature, some are new.
First of all, confirmation bias and motivated reasoning can lead people to look for information that backs up what they already believe and disregard the rest. Corrections on topics people feel particularly strong about not only may not work, they can also have the opposite result, something known as the backfire effect. Fact-checkers need to find ways to convey what the best empirical information tells us in a way that is believed. But they must also beware of it in themselves as they settle into doing work in certain ways without questioning our assumptions.
We need to find formats for people who are bored with reading long articles stuffed with hyperlinks. On this front I am glad to note some success on Snapchat and bots. But we haven’t seen a breakaway podcast, and seen the struggles with TV.
Thirdly, fact-checkers have to find ways to break into the social media echo chambers. Facebook poses two principal challenges to fact-checkers: a great source of misinformation, and a growing barrier to reaching users who may not already be liking similar content.
Fourth: we need to introduce new and more effective ways to measure our impact. Anecdotes are great, academic studies even better. But fact-checkers should be looking at measuring impact in the same way that they measure traffic. The measurement should be continuous and at the basis of .
Finally, business models. Here my question is always the same: which fact-checking organization will be the Storyful of our field? While I don’t suggest we should measure success of a public service in terms of sale value, I do think we should be thinking of ways to make this work scalable and self-sustaining.
These are heady challenges. Still, fact-checkers are lucky to be working in a field of accountability journalism where these are the questions to deal with every day.
Hopefully they will be honest enough to spot our own limitations and persevering enough to find a few of the answers.