On 21st February 2018, Medianama held a discussion in Delhi, on Fake News and Online Content Regulation, with support from Facebook. The following are notes from a panel on Fact-checking processes and business models.
As fake news permeates newsrooms and spreads on social media, fact-checkers play the role of vanguards against this spread of misinformation. How do they go about doing this?
HR Venkatesh of the International Center for Journalists (ICFJ) began the discussion explaining the types of fact-checks, “There are three types of fact-checks and in the media, we get confused because we do all the three types. First up is the old New Yorker-style, somebody writes a story and the fact-checker goes through and checks the minutest of details, every piece of description made. That is really old-school journalism that I believe the New Yorker and many older magazines continue to conduct. The second is what we in the media mostly do, that is verify breaking news. If something happens we look at two-three sources to corroborate that information before we put it out. The problem we are facing right now is the third type, for which newsrooms are completely not prepared, which is debunking false information or fake news.”
Karen Rebelo of BOOM, an independent fact-checking website, spoke about how they go about the process. Rebelo said, “We look at fact-checking a bit differently. We don’t just look at news and propaganda we look at any sort of opportunity to clarify something, it could be a message on Whatsapp or report on TV. We go after fake news as well.”
Syed Nazakat of DataLEADS then spoke about the magnitude of the fake news problem, “Fake news certainly is a problem. But I think it is very important to distinguish what you are calling fake news. Somebody can just make a mistake. If somebody tweets or puts something on Facebook is that fake news? If we don’t understand the problem well then we won’t be able to find the right solution. There is now a global dedicated network of fact checkers. In every journalism conference, we are having people talk about that and there’s a societal debate about it. We have accumulated a lot of things under fake news and that is problematic. We have to identify what the agenda is behind the fake news is it propaganda, money or are people just doing it for fun?” Nazakat believes that understanding and properly labelling what fake news is will help us deal with the issue better.
The tools of fact-checking
Pratik Sinha of AltNews then spoke about the tools and the work that goes into the process of fact-checking. Sinha said, “It is not rocket science at all. We prioritise three kinds of fact-checks. One is when a politician says something, for example, is when PM Modi said that they started direct benefit transfers in one of his speeches. We know that all government announcements are made on the Press Information Bureau’s website and with a filtered Google search you can debunk that statement. Another thing that we use frequently is Google reverse image search for both images and videos. You can slice up a video into individual images an use image search to verify the source of the video. The third thing what we have done is reach out to law enforcement agencies and surprisingly despite my negative opinion of them, they have been helpful. These are the multiple approaches we do which I think every journalism outlet should do. Things that we do are fairly easy, its just that many journalists have abdicated their responsibility as far as news is concerned.”
Continuing on from where Sinha left off Rebelo spoke about handling and fact-checking videos, “First of all I’d just like to say that all tools that BOOM uses are free. Every tool has its problems and no tool out there will do the work for you or give you a thumbs up or thumbs down. So it’s a combination of tools, your journalism instincts and at the end of the day picking up the phone and verifying as much as you can. What I advise a lot of journalists is, try and use Facebook and Youtube as search engines. Everyone now needs to up their levels of scepticism when they are dealing with any kind of information. And make use of all the tools that fact checkers are talking about. BOOM Live is now building training material and we are happy to come to newsrooms to teach journalists how not to fall for this stuff.”
Is there a business model?
So the tools are present and are very accessible, so what is stopping news organisations from implementing this? Nazakat said, “It’s a question of business model. Globally almost 60-70% fact-checkers are dependent on grants, global grants that offer to fund for anywhere between two to ten years. Some 20% people are those who are working with big organisations because big organisations are also interested in fact-checking now. For example, organisations like the New York Times and Guardian have a team now for fact-checking. The final model is based on memberships and subscriptions, it’s a journalist product that they can sell to the market.”
Sinha’s AltNews runs on a donation-based model and he said the results were encouraging, “We have a very small team at the moment, it’s three people who are getting salaries including me. Every month we are getting enough donations to cover these three salaries. Obviously increasing this to a larger number would be a challenge and that point we have depend on grants.”
Fact-checking is not just about tools but there is a process involved, so how much time does it take fact-checkers to debunk a piece of fake news? Rebelo said, “It really depends on the type of news stories we handle, on average we do three stories a day. But sometimes if it is a low-level fake where it takes a quick phone call to debunk and report back. Images and videos aren’t really hard to debunk, the really hard ones are statements made by politicians and you have to go through multiple sources to verify or debunk that.”
Collaboration among fact-checkers can significantly help improve their effectiveness, Rebelo gave an example, “I personally have worked on four stories which have involved fact-checkers from Argentina, Pakistan and Saudi Arabia. There was a graphic video shared by a Muslim Facebook group in which four men brutally kill and dismember a person. It was labelled as RSS workers killing a Muslim man as retaliation to ‘love jihad’. You could hear a few words of Spanish in there and I reached out the fact-checker in Argentina to verify. I was informed that the slang in the video was Mexican and that was enough to trace back the video to its original source. It was an act of cartel violence in Mexico.”
One of the challenges for fact-checkers is that their debunking often reaches a far smaller audience than the original fake news story itself. Sinha said, “If a video with fake information goes viral and we then fact check and debunk it, the video continues to be viral for even 2-3 days after that. So whether we fact-check or not doesn’t matter if it continues to be viral. We feel we are only serving an English speaking urban audience and the people who are falling for fake news are non-English speakers from tier-2, tier 3 towns. The only way to reach out to them is through the mainstream media. We can never reach such a vast audience with the amount of funding we have. Only when the mainstream media keeps doing that then you can develop that critical thought in people.”