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.
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:
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 Truth has been replaced by identity and lived experience as arbiters of reality.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.
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: