/ 25 October 2019

Fact-checking is no silver bullet but it does help fight disinformation

Fact-checking organisations should not simply focus on tackling false information
Fact-checking organisations should not simply focus on tackling false information, but also on identifying sources of reliable information and pointing their readers to them. (Reuters)



According to fact-checkers at the Washington Post, United States President Donald Trump has made more than 13 000 false or misleading claims since his inauguration. It is no wonder some people doubt that fact-checking politicians’ claims is an answer to the problems of this misinformation age.

When politicians and journalists from around the globe met at the Global Conference for Media Freedom in London in July, they acknowledged that the rise of misinformation has contributed to declining public trust in politicians and the media.

Effective solutions have not been forthcoming but that does not mean that there are none. As the leaders or founders of fact-checking organisations in Africa, Latin America, and Europe, we know that our work can play a powerful role in countering the effects of misinformation and restoring faith in reliable sources.

This requires, first and foremost, a comprehensive understanding of the challenges we face. Most of the world’s almost 200 fact-checking organisations operate on the assumption that presenting the public with corrected information will convince them to update a false view.

Not surprisingly, most academic work on fact-checking has aimed to test this assumption. The results are promising. Nobody could claim that presenting people with correct information guarantees that they will adjust their views, but studies have shown that fact-checking helps the public to revise their understanding of claims, even when the finding contradicts a firmly held belief.

But simply publishing fact-checks is not enough. Even with the greatest resources it would not be possible to trace everyone who has seen the misinformation and put our fact-check in front of them. And there is simply too much misinformation circulating online and in public debate to fact-check every false claim made.

That is why, beyond identifying and correcting important misinformation, fact-checkers must engage with politicians, the media, social-media platforms and other relevant institutions to reduce the supply.

This means contacting public figures to request on-the-record corrections, lodging complaints with standards bodies and providing training to media organisations. It also means working with tech companies to find ways to prevent the wider circulation of misinformation.

Fact-checking organisations should not simply focus on tackling false information, but also on identifying sources of reliable information and pointing their readers to them. And we should work with educational institutions to help teach people to identify false or misleading claims. This is the approach our organisations take and the effect is already apparent.

In January, Ibrahima Diouf, the economist in charge of writing the manifesto of Senegal’s Parti de l’Unité et du Rassemblement, said that, because of Africa Check’s work, writers of political-party manifestos paid more attention to the accuracy of their figures.

In South Africa, ANC general manager Febe Potgieter-Gqubule declared that Africa Check “plays an important role” in keeping political parties and their leaders accountable. Reducing the supply of misinformation by engaging with those in power works.

In Argentina, fact-checking organisation Chequeado has created the country’s first programme to teach critical thinking and news literacy skills to young people. The results of this effort to inoculate the young against the harm caused by misinformation mirrored those of a 2016 study, which showed a huge leap in the ability of school-age children in Uganda to distinguish good and bad health information after being taught similar skills.

We shouldn’t underestimate the scale of the threat posed by misinformation and declining trust but the problem is not intractable. By addressing not only the symptoms, but also the systemic problems that underlie them, fact-checking organisations, media, government, and business can resist these worrisome trends. — © Project Syndicate

Peter Cunliffe-Jones is the founder of Africa Check, Laura Zommer is executive director of Chequeado, Noko Makgato is executive director of Africa Check, and Will Moy is chief executive of Full Fact