Fact-checkers have lost important digital tools — and will lose one more in September

August 6, 2019
Category: Uncategorized

It’s been a tough year for fact-checkers. At least three major digital tools have been lost so far, and fact-checkers have already seen the impact on their daily routines. The worst news, however, is that another big loss is due next month.

In June, Vice reported that Facebook had quietly changed Graph Search, a tool that allowed fact-checkers to map informational networks within the platform to find the origin of false news item.

This was one of the most useful search-engines in many fact-checkers’ daily routines. In India, fact-checkers were able to expose a fugitive criminal by using the tool. Fact-checkers in France were able to investigate sexual abuse against teenagers. And in Brazil, fact-checkers disclosed the existence of disinformation networks against certain politicians.

After Graph Search was shut down, journalists turned to third-party applications that could also scrape data inside Facebook and help separate fact from fiction. Stalkscan, Sowdust and PeoplefindThor are just a few examples of websites that were well-known within the open-source intelligence (OSINT) community and became big hits with the international fact-checking community. But it didn’t take long until Facebook made other changes that led to these sites also shutting down.

Now, it’s the Facebook-owned CrowdTangle that will face a major alteration. The platform, which was built to uncover and monitor the spread of social media content, will stop offering Twitter data on its dashboard starting Sept. 29.

According to a Facebook’s spokesperson, this decision is related to an API change Twitter announced in March.

“We were unable to find an alternative solution to work with based on our architecture,” the platform said in an email to the IFCN. “We explored potential solutions with the Twitter team, but given CrowdTangle’s unique needs, we weren’t able to find a solution that maintains the same level of service our partners expect when they come to CrowdTangle.”

Facebook also says that “there are other resources you (fact-checkers) can check out to continue getting metrics about content you’ve shared on Twitter.”

The company suggests media.twitter.com for tools that Twitter makes available for publishers and, for those who want more advanced analytics, partners.twitter.com. But fact-checkers around the world aren’t happy at all with the news.

“One after another door is closing,” said Bal Krishna, the editor of India Today’s fact-checking team. “For most people, search means Google. But Google — or most of the other search engines — can’t search inside Facebook.”

And it’s common sense that Facebook is the fact-checkers’ battlefield.

“I feel that the tech companies are becoming more and more possessive about their data for reasons that are not difficult to understand. ‘Protecting privacy’ or ‘sparsely used’ are certainly not the reasons (behind these decisions) — as they would like us to believe,” Krishna said.

Chico Marés, a fact-checker at the Brazilian platform Agência Lupa, is an ardent CrowdTangle user, and said he is less than excited about the changes announced for September.

“It certainly doesn’t help us. Our chances of finding disinformative content outside our monitoring scope will certainly diminish,” he told the IFCN.

“But unlike Facebook, Twitter has a very good advanced search engine, and tools like TweetDeck can also help us do many of the things we do today with Crowdtangle. We will only have to change our way of finding disinformative content.”

Marés acknowledged that the “privacy data” issue is tricky.

“On one hand, this concern with privacy is genuine and it’s only natural that social platforms improve data protection. But it’s also true that many social media users use their personal profiles – or, often, fake or automated profiles – to spread disinformation, and some of these data protection measures hamper our ability to monitor what’s going on.”

He said he wishes tech companies would be more collaborative and transparent with fact-checkers before announcing major changes to their tools.

“They should reach out and listen to the people who work directly with the platforms, not only fact-checkers but all legitimate stakeholders on these issues, before making such changes. That might help them to come up with more balanced solutions to improve their own business.”

Jules Darmanin, the former coordinator for FactcheckEU (a collaborative project funded by the International Fact-Checking Network to fight dis/misinformation during 2019 European Election), said he thought about contacting Facebook when Graph Search was taken down.

“Graph Search was an important tool for fact-checkers, not so much for checking facts in themselves, but for identifying the sources and paths of misinformation,” he explained in an email sent to the IFCN last week.

“Fact-checking is not only finding the real context of an image or getting the right unemployment figures. There’s more and more investigative work put into, and Graph Search was a part of it. People in the OSINT community found some workarounds, but Facebook has shut down most of them one by one.”

Darmanin is worried about the loss of these tools, and concerned about how this could impact the daily fact-checking routine for many newsrooms around the world.

“On a broader level, fact-checkers will need to have a higher technical skillset,” he advised. “As platforms are shutting down their tools and APIs, they (the fact-checkers) will need to resort to third-party tools which need a little more technical savviness.”

Note: The author of this article is the founder of Agência Lupa.