In the spring of 2018, I had lost my sense of professional purpose. A few months earlier, an amazing journey with a company that I had helped create over many years had ended when the company was acquired. The outcome was so fulfilling in so many ways, but also deeply disorienting.
It was around that time, while in a general state of navel-gazing, I had a chance encounter with someone who runs a global news organization, who sat across from me on an Acela between New York City and Washington, DC. I’d had a lifelong crush on journalism and had been despondent for a while about the crumbling of the news industry and the torrent of misinformation flooding our lives. So on that train ride, I unloaded on my new friend and we talked about all this and the seeming inability of traditional journalism gatekeepers to intercept the problem.
And when our train pulled into Washington’s Union Station, just like that, I suddenly had purpose again.
The purpose formed around this thought: Can we create a fact-checking platform that anyone can use to become self-reliant? Can we bring the crowd-powered, consumer-empowering worlds created by Wiki, Waze, Lyft, TripAdvisor and others to the world of fact-checking? Would that be hard? (Spoiler alert: Yup, pretty hard, but not impossible).
Since 1995 when Snopes began debunking wild claims that were making the rounds, fact-checking as a branch of journalism has been on the rise. In 2008 a Pulitzer for Politifact, a fact-checking organization founded by Bill Adair to focus on claims by public officials, further raised this new profession’s profile and legitimacy.
Today 30 or so fact-checkers are operating in the US. They publish their findings on their websites — see some examples here and here. They are for the most part non-profit organizations, funded by donors and some private platforms like Facebook. The work they do is meaningful and this community currently produces ~600 fact-checks a month. (The numbers worldwide are about 2–3x that.)
For all this progress, it still feels like we are playing in the safe shallows of an ocean of misinformation. We need to go from 600 to 6,000 to 60,000 fact-checks a month. As important, we need to intercept low-grade ‘news’ where it originates and gets consumed, which is now mostly on Facebook, Reddit, WhatsApp, TikTok, Twitter and the like. We need to get fact-checks in the hands of consumers where they need it and the moment they need it, and build in every consumer the instinct to demand fact-checking. We need to make it cool and engaging to use fact-check resources so it’s done effortlessly and enthusiastically. We need to create a model where fact-checks will be embraced and trusted by most people.
As I write this, we are at the infancy of bringing some of these ideas to life with Repustar — a crowd-powered platform for fact-checking, or claim-reviewing as we prefer to call it. More than 30 community reviewers have joined our open network and produced 300+ reviews of online claims in the last couple of months. And more than a thousand people have downloaded our app and reported various claims they have chosen to challenge online. Repustar Reviews are beginning to be circulated by people like you and me into their social media threads.
The journey has begun. My colleagues and I will report out on our adventures from time to time in this blog. Stay tuned.