Who are fact checkers and what do they do?

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A recent boom in fact-checking projects is trying to tackle the rapid rise of mass misinformation, widespread inaccuracy and “fake news.” Fact checkers aim to establish whether claims made by politicians and media outlets are accurate and well-founded, and then correct them when they are wrong, before they can have dangerous or damaging consequences. (Check out our Big Read: How fact checking evolved in the internet era here.)   

WikiTribune spoke to Africa Check, Full Fact and The Conversation  – three leading organizations that specialize in fact checking. Africa Check launched in 2012 and is the first website (VOA News) in South Africa to focus solely on fact checking. Full Fact is a UK-based fact checker and charity also working on two projects designed to automate the fact-checking process. The Conversation is a not-for-profit current affairs website, which works with academics to produce fact checks.

We interviewed Kate Wilkinson, a senior researcher at Africa Check, Lucinda Beaman, fact check editor at The Conversation, and Phoebe Arnold, head of communications and impact at Full Fact, about fake news, trust and their tips for readers. All three were interviewed in late 2017. The following has been lightly edited for clarity.

Why is fact checking important?

Wilkinson: Because newsrooms have gotten smaller. Because of cutbacks and growth, there aren’t as many people in a newsroom as there used to be, and a lot of those people are younger than they used to be, and there’s a 24-hour news cycle with all these deadlines. There often isn’t much time for important fact checking to be done which holds people accountable. We see time and time again where newsrooms will publish what politicians have said as though their word is golden and what they’re saying is true. But when you actually take the time – which we’re lucky enough to have – to check if it’s true and see if they have evidence, often you find that they don’t, and that this misinformation is just accepted as fact because someone with a public status said it.

Arnold: It’s about making it easy for people to have the same access to information as politicians who’ve got the Civil Service at their disposal … I suppose it’s about holding people to account for what they say … the fact that we call people up does have an effect. We call it the “they know we check” effect, so there’s been a few times over the last years where people say, “Oh god, not you again.”

Beaman: Because we need to make sure that our politicians and readers and other influential people in society are held to account and aware that it’s not acceptable to spin information to such an extent that it becomes very misleading or to share false information.

How do you think we can tackle fake news?

Wilkinson: I think the easiest and best thing we need to do to combat fake news is that we all have to stop doing what we’re all really guilty of – and that’s sometimes sharing it. The public really is the engine of fake news because they’re the ones who drive it on social media and share it and drive the viral traffic to it. We need to be more responsible internet users. And we need to make sure that what we share is true and that we’re not helping line someone’s pockets because they’re writing false stories and posting them as news. (Read How to spot fact from online fiction here.)

Beaman: I think technology is going to be extremely important in battling fake news in terms of identifying the sources of fake news and catching it as it’s spreading. Once information is out there, you can’t completely call it back. Even if you can correct it, the seed of doubt has already been planted, and obviously not everyone will see the correction or believe it. So there are going to need to be some very impressive technological advances to be able to very quickly identify fake news as it’s spreading. We need to find ways to deal with people who are propagating it. It’s gonna be extremely tough.

Why were you founded?

Wilkinson: Our director was an AFP correspondent in Nigeria and he saw in the 1990s how polio had really made a comeback in the country. And one of the main driving forces behind this was misinformation … spread by imams in cultural communities, about the fact that the polio vaccine was actually being used to sterilize Nigerian women. And this led to people not vaccinating their children because of fear and because of this misinformation. Africa Check is really a way to first counter misinformation [and] provide accurate information to people making political or economic or health decisions about their lives.

Arnold: Peter Oborne, who used to work for British newspaper The Telegraph, wrote a book called The Rise of Political Lying about the UK, which our director read …. and he thought, maybe we need fact checkers here, like Oborne says. That’s how it got set up, and he sent a proposal to several different peers of different [political] parties, saying, “I’d like to do this. Would you be interested? Do you think it’s a good idea?” And within 24 hours, they all replied saying they thought it was a really necessary and good idea and then from there we went on.

Beaman: [We are] bridging that gap between the public and academia … this is what The Conversation is about. So we’re bringing all that expertise and research and we’re finding a way to get it to everyone in society so they can benefit from all of that knowledge accumulated in our universities. And that’s what I mean … our tagline is: “Academic rigor, journalistic flair.”

Why should we trust you?

Wilkinson: We make sure that we’re completely transparent in our process. We hyperlink to all the information we use, and we’re always open to discussing and engaging with people on our reasoning, on our conclusions, so that they can understand how we’ve reached it.

Arnold: We prefer if people don’t just trust us outright. One of the reasons we were set up is Onora O’Neill – she’s a peer in the House of Lords and also a professor of philosophy – did some really great lectures in 2002, for the BBC Reith Lectures and in it she said, “We don’t want to place blind trust as children do, but informed trust.”

Beaman: We don’t accept any advertising. We require our academic authors to publish disclosure statements alongside their articles, so that readers can see any funding that they receive, where it came from, and any other affiliations they might have. We also ask all our academic authors to provide links to research and data, and other evidence to support the statements they make in their articles. We aren’t asking our readers to trust us, so much as giving them all the information possible so that they can interrogate information and make a decision for themselves.

What tips do you have for users?

Wilkinson: The best and easiest thing you can do before you believe something or click the share button is ask the researcher’s questions: Is it true? Could it be true?

Beaman: Perhaps consume less information, but what you do consume, consume it critically, so really think about the information, assess it. Take a minute to click on a link, if there is a link, to a source and ask yourself: “Is it a credible source? Is it a government data set? Is it a data set that has existed for a long time from a reputable organization? Is it a research report that’s published in a peer reviewed journal?” Take the time to look into it, especially before sharing the information with others. 

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