Why we need open collaboration to fact check the news

What can be done to connect readers and professional fact-checkers?

The democratisation of the information on the internet, long acclaimed as a bright advance for society, has come with great challenges. Easy access to news production has empowered not only virtuous citizens to produce information, but also a series of new actors that, willingly or not, contribute to spreading misinformation across the news environment.

The changing dynamics of news consumption have put many media publishers in a hot spot, competing for attention, immediacy, and clicks, often resulting in a lowered quality control of the actual news output.

Acceleration of information flow has made it more difficult for many people to discern trustworthy facts from incorrect information.

All these factors and many others contribute to a decreased trust in the media. What can be done about it?

The emerging professional figure: the news fact-checker

Information has never been just an issue of rationality. Political communications, like marketing, has long used the power of emotions, and the appeal of misleading information, to create interest and consensus. The same concept is being used extensively by professional misinformers to spread their content.

Early 21st century fact-checking was born precisely to monitor the declarations of politicians. Nowadays, fact-checking has become an all-round process: it’s the whole internet that needs a double-check. It is easy to see that the fact-checker is moving from being an emerging role to a central figure of our time’s journalism and communications.

Professional fact-checkers are not enough though, and the content to monitor is practically endless. Moreover, even if fact-checking is widespread, it can to be difficult to find for the average user. To counteract the proliferation of false information, many great minds are exploring artificial intelligence and automatisation, to connect the work done with any instance in which fake information recurs. This is necessary but will it be enough?

A new approach

Among the many strategies that are on the table to tackle the spread of misinformation on the net, I would like to propose a new approach, one that focuses on:

  • Collaboration: Between professional fact-checkers, journalists, researchers and civil society.
  • Technology: The spread of misinformation online is also a technological problem. Production of news has been made easier than its interpretation. We need to create technologies that favour interpretation, critical thinking, collective intelligence and a human-like pace.
  • Education: A platform to favour mutual education, training and learning from each other.
  • Inclusion: Readers can help a lot with fact-checking. Even if trained journalists create great work, the amount of information to process can be just too much.

User-generated fact-checking can be helpful in many ways: from monitoring potential misinformation, as it happens in forums like the 100,000-strong Snopes Facebook group, to fact-checking online information using pre-existing knowledge (connecting to sources, to fact-checking articles, to experts).

I am aware of the risks that opening up fact-checking entails but I believe that a careful technological design, the use of a hierarchical system in which professionalism and merit are rewarded, and the goodwill of thousands of committed individuals can lead to amazing results.

A platform for fact-checking

When I started thinking about this approach over two years ago, I had little knowledge of where it would take me. But through discussing it with peers in the worlds of journalism, tech start-ups and academia I became convinced that there was enormous potential for a platform based on these principles.

Together with a partner, we have launched Precept, a company that has as its objective the improvement of the online information environment. Our first big project is uCheck, a cross-application platform designed to connect the dots outlined above.

uCheck will allow professional and non-professional users to register and achieve an initial score based on their proven field experience in fact-checking or on specific issues. Contributors will be able to open debates on whole articles or specific contents, add sources and vote resolutions that will be public on the web app and impact directly on the news for all readers that have downloaded the extension.

Designed to be very accessible but to leave almost no space for trolling or flaming, our plan is to create a community of fact-checkers, a common network for anyone passionate about trustworthy information.

By distributing points for every community-accepted fact-check, contributors will be able to level up in the community and become ‘top fact-checkers’, and get access to a marketplace for research and fact-checking, crowd-sourced fact-checking campaigns, and a visible recognition of their effort and abilities.

Media and organisations

One of the great advantages for the media ecosystem stems from the way media accesses real-time statistics about content. As we said, incorrect information not only spreads because of the will of certain actors, but also due to lowering standards in the media industry resulting from lack of resources and revenue.

By connecting with our platform, media outlets will be able to get real-time data, warnings and verifications about their own content which can be used to quickly correct potential mistakes and to reward virtuous journalists.

Organisations, whether institutions or private corporations, could also find great benefits in such a platform. As Gartner highlights in their last strategic framework, “With an increasing amount of fake news, companies need to closely monitor what is being said about their brand and the context in which it is being said.” A pool of proven fact-checkers and a marketplace for crowd-sourcing research campaigns, connected to a whole community dedicated to halting the spread of misinformation would be an invaluable asset to achieve these goals.

uCheck is far from being the only project that is trying to introduce collaboration and technology into new forms of fact-checking. This is great news for everyone who worries about the dangers of the spread of misinformation: professionals, academics, politicians, tech companies and big chunks of civil society are reacting to one of the great problems of the information society.

Our advice and hope is to create a place where all these efforts can be shared and put together, focusing on collectively improving research skills, critical thinking, and tools for easy information-sharing and collaboration.

PS — While I was writing this post, First Draft has published a new report by Claire Wardle and Hossein Derakhshan that include 35 recommendations to the Council of Europe. It is encouraging to find among these a strong focus on collaboration and education, together with a call to provide more space to technological startups to design, test, and innovate

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