Fact-checking works. Alexios Mantzarlis from the International Fact-Checking Network at Poynter gave us some advice.
‘We believe in fake news for the same reason we believe in real news. We are trusting creatures (mostly). If I asked for someone’s passport every time I met someone new to verify their name is correct, I’d lose a lot of time and make very few friends.’ says Alexios Mantzarlis, underlining his view that anyone can fall prey to misinformation, making the work of fact checkers all the more vital.
Alexios Mantzarlis is the director of the International Fact-Checking Network at Poynter, where he writes about, and advocates for fact-checking. Throughout his time at Poynter, Mantzarlis has led a partnership between Facebook and third-party fact-checkers, helped draft the fact-checker’s code of principles, and co-launched International Fact-Checking Day. He shared his expertise with our network, giving tips on what makes fact-checking impactful and the respective role of humans and machines when it comes to uncovering the truth.
No, we are not living in a post-truth era
Mantzarlis is adamant that the coining of our era as ‘post-truth’ is ‘obnoxious’, and that the circulation of false information, which became an issue long before 2016, is finally getting the attention it needs. ‘This is not a new problem. Politicians got away with falsehoods in talk shows and debates, because hosts and networks weren’t interested in on-air fact checks.’
Once hoaxes, fake news, and lies have been discovered and debunked, does receiving the verified information have a direct effect on public opinion? The answer is a qualified yes, says Mantzarlis. While confirmation bias, motivated reasoning, or a lack of media literacy might cloud our judgement, we are only ‘fact-resistant’ and not ‘fact-immune’. Drawing our attention to correct information does not lead to a backfire effect, but forces us to reconsider what we already believe to be true.
In 2016, a study by Thomas Wood and Ethan Porter, which analysed 8,100 respondents’ reactions to 36 factual corrections on a number of topics, concluded that ‘by and large, citizens heed factual information, even when such information challenges their partisan and ideological commitments.’ A study by the Royal Society Open Science published earlier this year, which focused on factual and false statements made by Donald Trump during the Republican primary, also found that fact-checking can change people’s beliefs, but not their voting intentions.
Five tips to make fact-checking impactful
Track the trends
The main takeaway for newsrooms when it comes to fake news and fact-checking is that public opinion does not only follow mainstream media discourse, but it also befriends minor stories, and strands of stories, such as fake news blockbusters. Fact-checkers therefore need to be monitoring whatever gets traction and not just what they are reading themselves. In short: exit your echo chambers. Online social monitoring tools, often used by marketers to predict trends or find influencers, such as Buzzsumo, CrowdTangle and Newswhip, are great for finding which sources are popular among readers.
Be where your audience is
Fact-checking, however, presents a double challenge. It is not just about unravelling untruths, but figuring out which audiences have been subjected to a particular news story, and finding ways of reaching them. ‘Facebook’s partnership with third-party fact-checkers offered the benefit of trying to make sure that the same people reached by the fake news also saw the annotated fact check. We’ll see how that plays out,’ says Mantzarlis. In general, he considers reaching the right audience to be a ‘fundamental challenge’, which will be addressed through reducing the time span of a fact check, and being creative about understanding which audiences were exposed to fake news.
On-air fact-checks in political debates do this pretty well in some countries, but Mantzarlis is currently particularly interested in the efforts made by La Silla Vacia. The Colombian news organisation has recently launched its WhatsApp Detector, a service that keeps an eye on viral chain messages that are making their rounds on the platform. Africa Check, Argentina’s Chequeado and India’s BOOM Live are also recruiting WhatsApp users to share debunked hoaxes on the groups where they initially came across them.
Be aware of tags
Another way of fighting fake news, or making people more aware of the type of content they are reading, is assigning a tag to specific articles, such as ‘satire’. Whether this reduces people’s capacity for critical thinking is another question, but not much research has been done to see if tags significantly reduce the spread of misinformation. Mantzarlis drew our attention to a study by Stanford on Civic online reasoning, which claims that more than 80 per cent of students believe that a news story with the ‘sponsored content’ tag is a real news story. This suggests that most young people do not know what ‘sponsored content’ is, making the tag relatively meaningless when it comes to distinguishing real news from advertising. It also suggests that a large part of believing fake news may be down to a lack of media literacy, underlining the importance of teaching people how to critically assess news from an early age.
How can AI help?
- AI can keep a watchful eye on potentially fake news that is spreading very quickly.
- AI can easily identify stories that are similar to already debunked hoaxes.
- AI can assist human fact-checkers in finding data more quickly, allowing them to publish fact checks at a faster pace.
AI requires cross-cultural collaboration
A real limitation to automated fact-checking is that a lot of progress is made in English, and some elements do not translate well, leaving non-English speakers at a significant disadvantage. As Pablo Martin Fernandez from Argentinian fact-checking organisation Chequeado often points out, it can be as simple as the difference between the decimal sign in different languages (point vs comma). The International Fact-Checking Network is therefore trying to foster cross-language and cross-culture collaboration through its annual fellowship programme. This allows one fact checker to spend time in a fact-checking organisation abroad, to learn more about the best practices that they can take back home with them. The British fact-checking charity, Full Fact, is also calling for international key players to work together, in order to build a shared AI infrastructure, and avoid duplicating progress.
Fake news is definitely an area that requires ongoing research: do we believe fake news because we fail to think, or because we seek information that corresponds to our views? What about malfunctioning algorithms in automated fact checking? These are just some of the questions to which we can’t wait to have the answers.
About Alexios Mantzarlis
Alexios previously served as Managing Editor of Pagella Politica and FactCheckEU, respectively Italy’s main political fact-checking website and the EU’s first multilingual crowd-checking project.
Before becoming a fact-checker, he worked for the United Nations and the Italian Institute for International Political Studies.