Opinion: Peter Cunliffe-Jones, Laura Zommer, Noko Makgato and Will Moy
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 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. When Europe’s political and business elite met the same month for the conference Les Rencontres Économiques d’Aix-en-Provence 2019, they, too, saw few options for renewing trust.
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.
Fulfilling this duty 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 generally convince them to update a false view.
Not surprisingly, most academic work on fact-checking has aimed at testing 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, including across international borders.
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. This is the approach taken by our organisations, and as small and under-resourced as they are, the impact is already apparent.
For example, in January, Ibrahima Diouf, the economist in charge of writing the manifesto for one of Senegal’s major political parties, Parti de l’Unité et du Rassemblement, told a University of Dakar researcher that, because of the Africa Check team’s work, writers of political-party manifestos paid more attention to the accuracy of their figures.
Similarly, 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. A few months earlier, the South African Police Service officially revised the national crime statistics, following an Africa Check intervention, admitting that the data were worse than they had initially reported. Reducing the supply of misinformation by engaging with those in power works.
At the same time, in Argentina, the fact-checking organisation Chequeado has created the country’s first programme to teach critical thinking and nemews 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. In the United Kingdom, for example, Full Fact has worked with the Office of National Statistics not only to open up its data to a wider audience, but also to ensure that it is delivered in a form the public will understand.
While we shouldn’t underestimate the scale of the threat posed by misinformation and declining trust, or the complexity of their causes, the problem is not nearly as intractable as some seem to believe.
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.
Peter Cunliffe-Jones is the founder of Africa Check. Laura Zommer is executive director of Chequeado. Noko Makgato is executive director of Africa Check. Will Moy is chief executive of Full Fact.