Big Read: How fact checking evolved in the internet era

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  1. Rolling Stones sang the praises of Rice Krispies -- or did they?
  2. Just the facts Ma'am
  3. Don't let the facts get in the way

In 1964, the Rolling Stones were little known in the United States. It would be a year until the song Satisfaction launched their status as the “world’s greatest rock and roll band.”

Before that, the band still needed to build a following around the United Kingdom. So they wrote and recorded a song for Rice Krispies breakfast cereal that aired on British TV. Sound believable?

Videos of the grainy black and white TV ad only re-emerged recently and caused a stir online last year. Could one of the headliners of the British Invasion, which thrived on their anti-establishment image, really have written a jingle?

It’s the sort of claim Brooke Binkowski tries to verify in her role as the managing editor of Snopes, which has been debunking and fact checking the internet’s most popular rumors since 1995.

Binkowski contacted Kellogg’s, which makes the cereal.

“We received confirmation from Kellogg’s, Rice Krispies’ parent brand, that the ad is indeed a vintage 1964 commercial and not an elaborate modern-day hoax,” the Snopes entry reads.

In this case, the unmistakable soaring harmonica and punchy blues riffs of the Stones really were what they seemed. Binkowski told WikiTribune it’s one of her favorite fact checks so far.

The Rolling Stones’ UK TV ad for Rice Krispies, recorded in 1964. It was referenced in a 2012 episode of ‘Mad Men’ when Don Draper tries to track down the band to record ‘Heinz is on my Side.’

Snopes is one of the internet’s most high-profile fact-checking websites; traffic peaked just after the 2016 U.S. presidential election with 3.7 million page views according to Wired.

But Snopes is just at the more populist end of an American media tradition of rigorous fact checking, a process built into the editing of articles before publication. It’s a practice that began in the booming U.S. newsprint industry in the early 1900s in response to an earlier wave of sensationalist and inaccurate publishing.

Recent intense competition for advertising revenues, clickbait content factories (Guardian) and an increasingly polarized political newsscape (Forbes) have created another crisis of accuracy in the media, and an environment where misinformation — or “fake news” — can be rapidly published and redistributed across social media.

Facts are essential to democracy

Snopes tries to tackle this problem by researching claims made by the media as well as by politicians. Identifying shared facts is an essential part of a functioning democracy, says Binkowski.

‘When disinformation fills the void, entire countries can collapse’ – Binkowski, Snopes

“Without agreeing on basic facts there’s no way to agree on any political systems that work,” she says, giving the example of Cold War propaganda in Ukraine and Albania in the 1980s. “When disinformation fills the void, entire countries can collapse in on themselves.”

There are now dozens of independent global fact-checking projects — more than 90 percent of which started after 2010, according to 2016 research by the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism at Oxford University. This trend has mirrored the rise of social media — platforms that have been crucial to the distribution and amplification of viral stories spreading misinformation.

In the U.S., started covering politics in 2003 while in the UK, the Channel 4 News Fact Check Blog launched in 2005. Slovakia, Ukraine and Georgia all launched their own versions during the past decade, and in Australia The Conversation, which launched in 2011 as a way to connect academic experts with a wider audience, has been able to reach an audience of 35 million people monthly by syndicating its content under a Creative Commons license.

The Conversation employs around 90 editors globally and is operated as a not-for-profit, funded by a yearly donation campaign and university support. Journalists and academic experts work together to fact check claims made by politicians and other prominent public figures. The organisation has had a dedicated fact check unit in Australia since 2013, with one to two full-time fact check editors in that country, and another fact check editor in the UK.

The Conversation‘s journalists rigorously fact-check the work and help make complex topics easy to understand, removing jargon and double checking sources before having the piece blind reviewed by another academic expert and a final editor. Lucinda Beaman, fact check editor at The Conversation, told WikiTribune that academic expertise is often “locked up inside universities,” so she aims to “bridge that gap between the public and academia.”

Automated fact checking

Manually checking even one claim can sometimes take weeks, depending on the nature of the source, but at least one project is looking at an algorithmic solution. The UK-based fact checker Full Fact received €50,000 of funding from Google’s Digital News Initiative in June 2017 to develop a fact-checking engine. The team says the engine will aim to cross-check facts online that have already been verified by reliable sources, as well as checking new claims against source material. The software will be made available to other fact-checking projects and is planned for launch in 2018.

Though automated fact checking could deliver instant results that would be particularly useful during events such as live political debates, it may not be able to tackle public skepticism of both the media and politicians. Only 29 percent of U.S. voters trust media fact checks of politicians’ comments, according to 2016 research by polling firm Rasmussen. The research also found that 62 percent of the U.S. public believes that the media skews facts to support the candidates it backs.

Facebook — which now has 2.01 billion global users every month — has borne the brunt of criticism (Forbes) about the way news is distributed online, and how its algorithms are now designed to deliver news and information that correspond to the reader’s interests. That “filter bubble” (New Scientist) means readers aren’t experiencing a diversity of views, and instead have only one world view reinforced.

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If it’s on Facebook, people believe it

When some of the information informing those views turns out to be false, that creates a complex problem — especially when that information is spread by ubiquitous social media that often rewards “shareability” and sensationalism over factual accuracy. Two thirds of Americans now get their news from social media, research by Pew in October 2017 found. It estimates that 45 percent of Americans turn to Facebook for news.

President Barack Obama warned of the dangers of fake news on social media before the 2016 U.S. presidential election.

“If they just repeat attacks enough and outright lies over and over again, as long as it’s on Facebook and people can see it … people start believing it,” he told a Democratic rally in November 2016.

‘Facebook should strengthen users’ ability to identify fake posts and false news,’ — International Fact Checking Network

Just days after Donald Trump’s election victory on November 8, 2016, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg was sent an open letter (Poynter) by the International Fact-Checking Network (IFCN), an alliance of fact-checking projects including Snopes.

It read: “Facebook should strengthen users’ ability to identify fake posts and false news by themselves, as the scale of the problem is too vast for a purely top-down approach.”

Did Facebook influence the election? Two days after the result, Zuckerberg dismissed that as a “crazy idea” (The Independent from The Washington Post).

A year later he admitted he regretted that comment.

After the election, however, Facebook had announced it would give users the ability to flag fake news stories, a feature that rolled out first in the U.S. in March 2017. Flagged stories are reviewed by the IFCN, and after two or more flags the warning “Disputed by 3rd Party Fact-Checkers” appears next to the article, with links to related fact checks. The story is then blocked from promotion across the site.

It is not yet clear how much impact this feature will have. Fact checkers receive far more flagged stories than they have time to investigate. “We’re always completely overloaded,” says Binkowski.

Flagging a post as “disputed” also made readers only 3.7 percent less likely to believe it, according to an October 2017 study by researchers at Yale. That contrasts sharply with Facebook’s own claim that the label helped reduce the spread of a fake news story by 80 percent, according to an internal email obtained by Buzzfeed.

“We’ve seen promising beginnings … [after] Facebook’s willingness in the midst of a PR crisis at the end of last year,” Lucas Graves, assistant professor of journalism at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, told WikiTribune.

He suggests that media literacy should be taught from elementary school right through to university level so that the public are trained to be more critical about the sources of information they consume.

“There’s a lot of evidence that despite our never-ending absorption on social media and on the internet in general, many of us are surprisingly bad at discriminating among different sources of information,” he said.

Who trusts fact checkers?

Individuals tend to view information through the frame of their own beliefs and are more likely to believe something they want to be true (NPR)Again, this is a behavior encouraged by social media that delivers personalized rather than comprehensive view points.

There has been some speculation that showing the opposing viewpoint can actually reinforce someone’s existing views — a trend nicknamed the “backfire” effect —but this is disputed. If true, this may partly explain why Trump seemed to get more popular (Slate) despite regularly being attacked or corrected by the media during his presidential campaign. However, the director of the IFCN, Alexios Mantzarlis, says that based on more recent studies “I think we can quite conclusively say that the backfire effect is not this enormous, hampering thing that makes fact checking ineffective.”

‘We’re not going to…be dictated by fact checkers,’ — Romney pollster in 2012

Importantly though, conservative voters are more likely to be skeptical about fact checks and less likely to read them. Of Democratic Party voters in the U.S., 59 percent had “favorable” views (National Public Radio) of fact checkers, according to research by academics Brendan Nyhan and Jason Reifler, while only 34 percent of Republicans trusted fact checkers. Readers who are interested in fact checking tend to be more educated and informed, according to research published in the American Press Institute, while those who are less interested tend to trust fact checkers less. It is the latter audience therefore that seems more important to reach.

Neil Newhouse, a pollster for American presidential candidate Mitt Romney, famously decreed in 2012: “We’re not going to let our campaign be dictated by fact checkers.”

Five years on, politicians do not seem deterred from giving out misleading or distorted facts, and that means the fact checkers are only going to get busier. As The New Yorker satirist Andy Borowitz put it, Trump has created “10 million jobs for fact checkers.”

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