[Cross-posted from Open Society’s Voices blog, for whom I wrote this when I was a Program Officer there.]
When South Africa suffered a wave of xenophobic violence in April, the New York Times reported that the country “is home to about five million immigrants”—nearly 10 percent of its population. South African website Africa Check took a close look at this figure—by then widely re-reported around the world—and debunked it.
All available data, Africa Check’s journalists discovered, pointed at a figure that was closer to 2.2 million, or four percent of the population. The Times responded by sharing the academic article from which it drew the figure, which Africa Check in turn showed to have been withdrawn by the journal in which it was published, on the grounds of plagiarism. Yet to this day, the five million figure remains in place on the New York Times website.
It’s a daily conundrum for news organizations around the world: journalists must gather factual assertions—about public finances, about migration figures, about any and all matters of public interest—and simultaneously report them as news and evaluate their accuracy. Of course, when these assertions are put forth by politicians and their staff, they know that by the time a journalist has analyzed them, the news report may already have been reproduced and referenced by other news media, giving the original assertion currency, as web comic XKCD has exasperatedly noted more than once.
The last few years, however, have seen the rise of a new breed of highly specialized journalist dedicated to holding public figures to account by rooting out untruths in political discourse: the fact-checkers.
At the 2014 G20 Summit, for example, nine fact-checking units collaborated in a virtual FactCheckathon to subject the claims of G20 leaders to analysis in almost real-time. “[We] were concerned,” co-organizer Alexios Mantzarlis of Italian website Pagella Politica told the American Press Institute, “the G20 leaders might get away with mentioning no facts at all during the conference.”
In the United States alone, the number of fact-checking stories in the media rose sharply between 2008 and 2012, perhaps by over 300 percent. The fact-checking phenomenon was sparked in the United States by projects like PolitiFact, created by former Tampa Bay Times reporter and editor Bill Adair, who says there are around 64 active fact-checking journalism units or organizations across more than 30 countries—a number that continues to grow.
Duke University’s Reporters Lab, which Adair now runs, maintains a global map of fact-checking units and organizations, including South African service Africa Check (an Open Society grantee), Dogruluk Payi in Turkey, Argentina’s Chequeado, Istinomer in Serbia, and India’s FactChecker.in. Many of these groups will meet in London this week for the second annual Global Fact-Checking Summit, bringing them together with teams from South Korea, Nigeria, Brazil, Mexico, and beyond to discuss the state of their field and its future.
Whether they operate year-round or only during election periods, as standalones or as units within larger news organizations, fact-checkers all subject factual statements made by politicians and other public figures to rigorous analysis, rate these statements for accuracy, and make public their methods, verdicts, and research. The ratings they use range from the straightforward True/False/Ridiculous system used by Uruguay’s UYcheck, to the more humorous Baloney Meter from Canada’s Global News, to the Washington Post’s Pinocchios.
The role of fact-checking journalists in this environment is crucial. Their credibility depends in large part on transparency around their methods. Most fact-checking sites—like PolitiFact, UYcheck, and Polish site Demagog—involve a team of journalists using a public methodology. Africa Check goes a step further by publishing resources to help journalists and others understand how to verify information more rigorously. Some sites show what’s fact-checked in their own stories. Business site Quartz experimented with using lighter and darker shades of text to represent different levels of confirmed information.
No methodology is foolproof. Mistakes happen, and fact-checkers’ verdicts are sometimes challenged and even reversed. But the true challenge to independent fact-checking is broader and more complex.
At least as quickly as this kind of high-profile fact-checking has spread around the globe, the dark art of political communication has absorbed its lessons and adapted. Research on the weaponization of fact-checking commissioned by the American Press Institute paints a challenging picture—political operations are creating their own fact-checking units, and adopting the language and methods of independent journalistic fact-checkers to gain political advantage. Political communication methods—such as micro-targeting voters based on IP addresses, or on niche or real-time platforms—are advancing rapidly, and even involve misquoting or misusing fact-check operations’ work.
Participants in this week’s London Summit (#GlobalFact) will discuss how the emerging field of fact-checking can respond to these challenges: through technology, such as computational fact-checking; through innovation in storytelling and presentation; and most crucially, through stronger collaboration with citizens and readers, including through crowdfunding.
Africa Check’s deputy editor, however, is bullish on their impact. “We have triggered change on numerous occasions,” says Anim van Wyk. “Last year, the main opposition party in South Africa, the Democratic Alliance (DA), wrote to Africa Check and others in the media to acknowledge the party had made ‘mistakes’ and agreed to rectify them. This was after we fact-checked key DA claims in the run-up to the national election in May 2014.”
DA officials then held meetings to tighten the way the organization checks the facts in statements before making them public. A senior consultant to the party called it “the Africa Check effect.”
Bill Adair says that seeing the quality and courage of fact-checking colleagues around the world at last year’s London meetup was a pivotal, emotional experience, and they’re excited to meet these new challenges head-on. “The dream is to get the fact-check information in front of citizens at the point of the political message—to detect the ad, and serve up a human-written fact-check right there,” he says. “But as we develop new techniques, they find new ways to get around them. It’s an arms race.”