The third panel discussion on “POINT Talks” platform, named Fact-checking community: Where we are and what tomorrow brings? brought together some of the leaders in the fact-checking community to rethink several core questions important for the future of fact-checking. Moderated by Tijana Cvjetićanin from “Zašto ne” (“Why not”), the panel took a look at what should be the next important steps in order to communicate better and get together as a community.
Baybars Örsek, director of the International Fact-Checking Network (IFCN), a global coalition of fact-checking organizations hosted by the Poynter Institute, opened the panel discussion with a short history of IFCN, and what the last year had brought to us. He put a special emphasis on accountability and transparency, as these were the high standards IFCN and its verified signatories have followed since the network’s establishment in 2015. He also noted that fact-checking grew in scale, and emphasised the importance it brings:
“Someone can argue that fact-checking is similar to collecting seashells in a large beach where waves are basically pulling them back to water, and one can ask what is the point then if you can save one shell at a time?”, said Örsek. “I guess that was a common understanding earlier when fact checkers were working and publishing their fact checks, and expecting that one can visit their website, and see all of those fact checks and then eventually either change their minds or beliefs, even though it’s not like that.”
Every year since 2014, IFCN organizes the Global Fact-Checking Summit which allows fact checkers from all over the world to meet and share their knowledge in person. Unfortunately, the Summit in 2020 took place online, which made it difficult to meet other fact checkers, hear their experiences, and share knowledge with them. However, even in the times of the pandemic, IFCN found a new way to share knowledge and still bring people together through the #CoronaVirusFacts Alliance. Over the past year, fact checkers debunked over 10,000 claims related to the pandemic, all kept in a single database of IFCN.
Because nobody can tackle the world of mis and disinformation alone, fact checkers and tech platforms – where false news are most intensely spread – need each other in that battle. “More and more tech companies are coming to fact checkers to explore partnerships to tackle misinformation on their platforms, and this has thrown up some common issues in terms of sustainability and how we scale our work online to mass audiences,” said Phoebe Arnold, Partnership Manager at Full Fact.
There are also risks at fact-checking organizations coming to depend on tech companies, especially in terms of keeping one’s independence, transparency and objectivity we in the fact-checking world so cherish. Another risk of this business model becoming dominant is putting fact-checking initiatives at competition with each other, while the prevailing sentiment in the community is that we need to cooperate and network more with each other.
Arnold recently did yet-to-be-published research for which she spoke to 35 organizations with different perspectives about their relationships with tech companies. There are certain emerging trends on organizing as a fact check community: it is a universal agreement that we should be cooperating more closely; but there’s no unified view on signing with tech companies, given the unpredictability built into those relationships, among other things. The power dynamics are not on our side either, due to the fact that tech companies are multibillionaire enterprises, while fact-checking organizations are mostly small nonprofits.
Gemma Mendoza from Rappler, a distinguished digital media company based in the Philippines, believes that we do need to work with them: “It’s important to keep working with the platforms, and it was something we saw as a necessity, because obviously this is the space where this is circulating, and if you do not work with the platforms, it is a big part of the engagement.”
Mendoza also puts an emphasis on how important deeper narratives are: “Looking at it from a bigger perspective goes beyond also what a single fact check can do.” Because of this, she reminds us that we need to take a step back and also that looking at single claims cannot make our work better. Instead, we should be focusing more on data journalism, which is a better tool to provide a big picture analysis.
However, some fact-checking platforms do not have the privileges to decide whether to work with tech companies or not, being at the periphery of financial and political powers. Some of them also work in countries in which it is extremely difficult and dangerous to do this job, and thinking about financing is even more challenging – for example, some are even banned from receiving funding for their work from foreign organizations.
This is a case for Tasha Sokolova, a fact-checking journalist on a Russian fact-checking project “Provereno Media” and member of the Eurasian Fact-Checking and Media Literacy Network (EFMN). Sokolova said: “Not only fact-checking is challenging in Russia, the whole journalism has a lot of restrictions, many different laws that restrict our freedom of expression and we have to follow all of them, because if we don’t, the fees are just so huge that it can kill the media itself. Fact checking is not a very popular thing in Russian media, either.”
Due to this, Provereno Media usually fact checks smaller stories such as those related to culture, which makes their job a bit easier. Sokolova was editor-in-chief of another fact-checking project, Monitor media, which ran from 2014 until 2019. They considered applying for IFCN membership in 2015, but decided against it, because, for them, following the Code of Principles was hard and could be potentially dangerous, she explained. This is something that Mendoza could agree with: “With every story that we do, there’s usually a reaction that isn’t always good.”
This was addressed by Baybars Örsek who gave something which can be seen as a silver lining to fact checkers all around the world living in regimes which stifle freedom of expression: “We have received some feedback in the last couple of years that IFCN’s Code of Principles might be very challenging for organizations operating in countries like Russia, even in my home country Turkey, or countries where we have now verified new signatures from, like Myanmar. Last year the whole community, led by our advisory board members Peter Cunliffe Jones, we began an audit and review process of our Code of principles, and last March we introduced a new set of criteria, and some, let’s say, flexibility, for those organizations who can demonstrate the challenges for their well-being and their safety.”
“The principles can be universal, but the tactics, even the strategy to implement those principles might be (different) in different settings,” said Örsek.
Ana Brakus, from Croatia-based Faktograf and the SEE Check network, made a strong emphasis on the need for fact-checkers to communicate more and on different scales: “I think one of the biggest lessons of the whole pandemic situation has been that meeting people, not talking to them through screens, but actually meeting them – sitting together and talking – is really important, it’s actually crucial. IFCN right now is really big, and is constantly growing and I feel it would be really important to make this community more community-like, and a little bit less mailing-list-like. In order to do that, you have to have people engaged. It is important to have a shared experience.” Brakus says that the Global Fact Summit is one of the tools which allows us to get together with the community. Like the majority of other panelists, she wishes for it to return to its normal soon, in an offline form.
She agrees with Mendoza when it comes to looking at fact checks from different perspectives: “It’s not only seeing data through tables and numbers, it’s actually zooming out and seeing that different disinformation or same disinformation can play a different role in different locations. And that’s a matter of perspective that I feel is kind of best appreciated if you actually talk to people.” Brakus also emphasizes that it’s not just communication between individuals – but also between different smaller networks of fact-checkers – that is needed to establish a stronger community and learn more effectively from each other.
Lastly, it is important to talk about sustainability and fact-checking: how can we become more independent, but still work with tech companies?
Arnold gives a closing remark regarding this issue by saying the following: “Nobody’s come up with a great business model that could work with other fact checkers in all different countries. Lots of people have different ideas on how to stay sustainable, making sure that our funding is not causing us to diverge from our principles of transparency. I think one of these issues I have with internet companies is that while it’s great that they’re giving us money to kind of play around building an audience, the lack of transparency of what we’re doing and how we’re doing it is not in line with our code of principles. I don’t think we need a code of funding, but it would be a really interesting discussion to talk about what we think is acceptable.”