Building Collaborations with Fact-Checkers and Journalists in Times of Political Uncertainty

In an era of political uncertainty and flinging national polls across every continent, the role of fact-checkers and journalists is coming back to relevance to ensure the integrity of online information and reporting on political campaigns. The good news is, major platform companies like Google and YouTube are partnering with the Poynter and the International Fact-Checking Network (members) via a new major $12 million grant to fund new initiatives, staff and products. Tech companies like Microsoft are continuously funding initiatives via the Democracy Forward Initiative projects including partnering with newsrooms globally. More philanthropic funding will trickle in and come to light as we enter 2024 — dubbed the year of elections.

The bad news is local newsrooms are still shattering, laying off their employees or outright shutting down.

This article highlights the experiences and insights gained from a few initiatives focused on fact-checking and election integrity programs during elections in countries with complicated push-and-pull freedom of press/internet/assembly realities such as the country of Tunisia in 2019. By emphasizing the importance of collaborative efforts and competency in tackling misinformation, these experiences provide valuable lessons for building collaborations with fact-checkers and journalists in similar contexts.

Note: Once the cradle and hope for a tumultuous yet unwavering parliamentary democracy in the Middle East, Tunisia has plunged into a state of consolidated executive power with limited representative democracy.

Here is what fact-checkers do

Sample from the fact-check "cards" published via Meedan's publishing tool to fact-check politicians statements during Tunisia 2019 general elections
Sample from the fact-check “cards” published via Meedan’s publishing tool to fact-check political statements during Tunisia 2019 general elections

Fact-checkers play a crucial role in assessing the accuracy and truthfulness of statements made by politicians, organizations, and other public figures. Some key responsibilities and impacts of fact-checkers include:

  • Researching claims, statistics, and data points made in speeches, articles, social media posts, etc. They reference original sources and studies to check accuracy.
  • Rating or assessing claims based on factual evidence. Common rating systems include categories like “True,” “Mostly True,” “Half-True,” “Mostly False,” “False,” etc.
  • Correcting misinformation and providing context around statements. This helps inform citizens and provides accountability for those making claims.
  • Writing articles, social media posts, etc. to explain their findings and distribute fact-checks to the public.
  • Serving as an independent watchdog against misinformation. They are a trusted source for verification and evidence-based information.

Here is what fact-checkers achieved in the few past years

  • PolitiFact has fact-checked over 30,000 statements since 2007. In 2022 alone, they evaluated over 3,000 claims.
  • The Washington Post’s Fact Checker database contains over 33,000 fact-checks of claims by politicians and organizations.
  • The Duke University Reporter’s Lab currently has 237 active fact-checking projects in 83 countries, a 10x increase since 2014.
  • The International Fact-Checking Network has grown from 44 verified signatories in 2017 to 138 organizations presently.

Fact-Checking Standards for Election Coverage

In today’s highly polarized information environment, fact-checkers face the immense challenge of breaking through echo chambers. When parties cling tightly to their own ideological perspectives and subjective realities, even rigorous and non-partisan fact-checking struggles to penetrate. The post-truth era threatens the very possibility of establishing an “objective truth” in political discourse.

This is exacerbated by the fragmented and partisan media ecosystem. From cable news to social media, people consume information tailored to reinforce their worldviews. In this tribal landscape, fact-checks are easily dismissed as biased or irrelevant to one’s own community. Truth has been replaced by identity and lived experience as arbiters of reality.

However, abandoning fact-checking and neutrality is not the solution. While the post-truth world poses very real problems, giving up on facts risks moral relativism, misinformation rising unchecked, and “might make right” mindsets (on all sides — booo). Fact-checking still provides a vital service in this environment. But the strategies must evolve.

One promising approach is establishing a new collaborative vision across party lines. Rather than fact-checkers just operating in their own bubbles, a cross-partisan network could enhance legitimacy. With transparent standards developed jointly by fact-checkers from the full ideological spectrum, the biases would balance out. And by emphasizing nuanced shades of grey over definitive rulings, fact-checks could better reflect complex truths. Most importantly, by innovating communication formats and partners, fact-checks can penetrate selective exposure patterns more effectively.

At the Berlin IGF in 2019, I led a ‘Collaborative Leadership Experience’ workshop with participants from diverse backgrounds to discuss fact-checking standards, particularly in the context of election coverage in contexts of immense political uncertainty, limited infrastructure for the information to travel equitably and eroding trusts. The workshop emphasized the need for a multi-stakeholder approach, combining human expertise with algorithmic tools to effectively track and verify false information. Key factors identified included language competency, understanding audience motivations, journalist safety, mental health care, transparency, neutral language, and the right to rebuttal.

Lessons Learned and Future Considerations

The team of the l’Economiste Maghrebin before the start of the third presidential debate on September 9th 2019

The experiences I gained from my time leading a fact-checking program in Tunisia left me valuable insights for building collaborations with fact-checkers and journalists. The following lessons can guide future endeavours:

  1. Multi-Stakeholder Approach: Emphasize the importance of involving diverse stakeholders, including media organizations, fact-checkers, and citizen media, to combat misinformation effectively.
  2. Competency and Contextual Expertise: Recognize the significance of language competency, understanding audience motivations, and the need for journalists to be safe and mentally supported in their fact-checking work.
  3. Transparent and Neutral Verification Process: Prioritize transparency in the verification process, ensuring that readers can judge the veracity of information. Avoid subjective language and provide a right to rebuttal for governments and other relevant actors.
  4. Timeliness and Diversity of Sources: Develop tools and indicators to track the speed of fact-checking. Encourage the use of diverse sources to ensure the quality and accuracy of journalism.
  5. Collaboration and Content Funneling: Foster collaborations between citizen media organizations and larger national media outlets to create a content funnel of verified information. This can help combat misinformation and improve media literacy among different demographic groups.
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