The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Fact-checking movement grapples with a world awash in false claims

Baybars Orsek, director of the International Fact-Checking Network, at the global fact-checking summit in Oslo on June 23 (Glenn Kessler/TWP)

OSLO — Members of fact-checking organizations from around the globe met last week for their first in-person conference in three years, confronting a world awash in baseless claims promoted by politicians and even governments and increasingly embraced by receptive audiences.

The torrent of false information, such as the election-fraud claims that led to the assault on the U.S. Capitol, Russian disinformation about the invasion of Ukraine and pseudoscientific assertions about the coronavirus pandemic, has emerged despite the astonishing growth of the fact-checking movement. In 2021, there were 391 active fact-checking projects, according to an annual census by the Duke Reporters’ Lab, up from 168 in 2016.

With more than 500 participants from 69 countries, the gathering was twice the size of the last in-person Global Fact summit in Cape Town three years ago. In 2014, some three dozen fact-checkers met for the first time in London at a small college classroom, hoping to spark greater global cooperation. That meeting led to the creation of the International Fact-Checking Network (IFCN), the umbrella organization that is housed at the Poynter Institute.

“Our collective trust in reliable and authoritative information is being attacked by people in power,” said Baybars Orsek, director of IFCN, when he opened this year’s four-day conference on Wednesday. “Their manipulation of truth makes people vulnerable to bad actors capitalizing on their lack of access to quality information for their own benefits. Autocratic governments and strongmen around the world are following similar playbooks to censor free speech and dissent under the name of fighting against ‘fake news.’ ”

Paradoxically, a substantial role in the growth of fact-checking has been played by Meta, parent company of Facebook and WhatsApp, an encrypted instant messaging and phone service. These social media platforms have come under fire for allowing false information to flourish on their sites. Meta executives announced at the gathering that they have already spent $100 million to help underwrite fact-checking operations in dozens of countries, many of which are paid to flag false information circulating on Facebook.

Meta and the Google News Initiative are also funding a new legal support fund for fact-checking organizations that face litigation and harassment. Fact-checkers in an increasing number of countries have faced intimidation and threats from authorities over their fact checks.

Mohammed Zubair, co-founder of an Indian fact-checking website, was arrested this week by police in Delhi after he highlighted, in a tweet, derogatory comments made during a debate by a spokesperson for Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s ruling Bharatiya Janata party (BJP) about the prophet Muhammad. Also this week, two days before the end of Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte’s term, the Philippines Securities and Exchange Commission affirmed an earlier decision to revoke the certificates of incorporation of Rappler, the country’s leading fact-checking organization, and Rappler Holdings Corporation. Rappler chief executive Maria Ressa, winner of the Nobel Peace Prize, vowed to appeal the decision.

Representatives of fact-checking organizations also expressed concern about how governments have increasingly sought to influence public opinion by dismissing fact checks or imposing regulations that would limit their impact.

Tania L. Montalvo, deputy editorial director at Animal Politico, a Mexican fact-checking website, described how a Mexican government agency has set up its own fact-checking unit to denigrate reports of corruption, such as from foreign media including the New York Times, as “fake news.” She said Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador, in weekly news conferences, also aggressively calls out fact checks that he disagrees with, reaching millions of viewers. “It is completely absurd,” she said. “They ‘verify’ or ‘fact-check’ with lies.”

Anne Applebaum, a Pulitzer Prize-winning historian and former columnist for The Washington Post who now writes for the Atlantic, warned attendees that the traditional fact check — in which individual claims by politicians or advocacy groups are vetted for accuracy — may not be adequate in a world in which a government such as Russia’s not only tells a single lie but has spent years laying the groundwork for “a whole elaborate narrative” to undercut the idea of a sovereign Ukraine.

“A fact isolated from context, whether it’s true or false, is almost meaningless,” Applebaum said. “You have to explain it or tell it as part of a story.”

She said Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky has striven to demonstrate his authenticity — wearing T-shirts and shunning the trappings of power — to effectively counter the “contrived fake world” of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s government. She said his efforts have been especially effective in the West, but less so in countries in Africa and Asia where Russian propaganda has deeper roots and faces less pushback.

Applebaum also praised the hearings by the congressional select committee on the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the U.S. Capitol as “a really interesting example of how to present and convey facts.” She described it as “a giant fact-checking and fact-confirmation operation,” made even more compelling by the committee’s decision to feature mostly testimony by Republicans and former Trump administration officials.

While some social media platforms have forged links with fact-checkers, tensions have risen with others.

This year, nearly 100 fact-checking organizations signed an open letter to Susan Wojcicki, chief executive of YouTube, saying that the company is “one of the major conduits of online disinformation and misinformation worldwide” and that it has allowed “its platform to be weaponized by unscrupulous actors to manipulate and exploit others.” The letter noted, for instance, that “from the eve of the U.S. presidential election to the day after, YouTube videos supporting the ‘fraud’ narrative were watched more than 33 million times.”

The letter has led to working sessions between IFCN members and YouTube, a Google-owned video service. For the first time in the nine years such gatherings have been held, YouTube sent a senior executive to address the audience.

Brandon Feldman, director of news and civics partnerships at YouTube, came to Global Fact with the message that he had been “humbled” by what he had learned from his discussions with fact-checkers. He said the company was taking steps to address concerns, such as elevating “authoritative sources” during breaking news events and downgrading false content. He said, for instance, that the organization features fact-check articles on “information panels” during breaking news events obtained through ClaimReview, a tagging system that highlights fact checks for platforms such as Google and Bing.

But Feldman, in a “fireside chat” with Orsek, dodged questions about committing to a more formal partnership with fact-checkers. “We’re thinking a lot about how to best support the industry,” he said.

His remarks prompted sharp comments and questions from fact-checkers in India, Pakistan, Georgia, Spain, the United States, the Philippines and Britain.

“I have never heard a senior company executive say we are ‘humbled’ and ‘we are on a journey’ except when they know they have done something badly wrong,” asserted Will Moy, chief executive of Full Fact in Britain. He accused YouTube of framing the question of dishonesty deceptively, as a choice between freedom of expression and taking content down. “What I wanted and expected to hear was an explanation for what was done in the past, an apology and action,” Moy said.

Feldman responded that he was expecting “outputs” to result from the “ongoing dialogue” with fact-checkers. “This isn’t a venue that we have participated in the past in a way that has been helpful,” he acknowledged, adding that his presence on the stage was “hopefully indicative of how much commitment we have to do more.”

(Note: Glenn Kessler is a member of the advisory board of the International Fact-Checking Network.)

From 2014: The global boom in political fact checking

From 2018: Rapidly expanding fact-checking movement faces growing pains

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