Facts don't lie, let's support those who check them
The threat of false news and declining trust is complex and should be reversed.
According to fact-checkers at the Washington Post, US President Donald Trump has made more than 13,000 false or misleading claims since his inauguration. It is no wonder some people doubt that the fact-checking of politicians' claims is an answer to the problems of this misinformation age.
When politicians and journalists from Europe, the Americas, Africa, and Asia 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. But effective solutions have not been forthcoming. But that does not mean that there are none. As leaders or founders of fact-checking organisations in Africa, Latin America, and Europe, we know our work can play a powerful role in countering the effects of misinformation and restoring faith in reliable sources.
Fulfilling this duty requires 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 generally 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. While nobody could claim that presenting people with correct information guarantees that they will adjust their views, repeated studies have shown that fact checking helps the public revise their understanding of claims, even when the finding contradicts a firmly held belief.
But simply publishing fact-checks is not enough. For starters, even with the greatest resources it would not be possible to trace all those who have seen the misinformation being corrected 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 traditional media, social-media platforms, and other relevant institutions to reduce the supply. This means reaching out to 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.
At the same time, fact-checking organisations should not simply focus on tackling false information, but also on identifying sources of reliable information and pointing their readers and followers to them. And we should work with schools and other educational platforms to help teach people to identify false or misleading claims.
In South Africa, Febe Potgieter-Gqubule, the general manager of the ruling African National Congress, declared in a public meeting that Africa Check "plays an important role" in keeping political parties and their leaders accountable. At the same time, in Argentina, the 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.
Finally, effective fact-checking requires efforts to improve public access to reliable information. While we shouldn't underestimate the threat posed by misinformation and declining trust, or the complexity of their causes, the problem is not nearly as intractable. By addressing not only the symptoms of misinformation and mistrust, 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