From glaring fabrication to masterful manipulation, fake news is a global problem. But society is fighting back. We meet the people separating fact from fiction
Like ambitious reporters the world over, the staff of Dagbladet and VG – two of Norway’s best-read newspapers – savour the thrill of beating the opposition to a front page scoop. But when leading journalists from both papers met in a nondescript Oslo office for a series of brainstorming sessions in December, they left their killer instincts at the door.
Something bigger than the race to land exclusives had brought the long-time competitors together: a commitment to defending readers from the seemingly inexorable rise of fabricated stories online – otherwise known as ‘fake news’.
“We’ve been rivals for more than 70 years, but it only took a few hours before we were talking freely as a team,” says Kristoffer Egeberg, a Dagbladet journalist who played a leading role in the talks. “People feel that this is a joint effort that everybody can be proud of.”
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The outcome was Faktisk (the word means ‘actually’ or ‘factually’ in Norwegian), one of dozens of factchecking projects launched by reporters, academics and researchers around the world in recent months. They are united in challenging the internet-fuelled spread of false stories – whether reports motivated by political agendas, or just a desire to turn clicks into cash via online advertising.
Propaganda, lying and spin have always been part of politics. But the proliferation of made-up reports circulating on social media during last year’s US presidential election sharpened concerns: could the systematic dissemination of fake news actually threaten democracy?
Many of these stories were crafted to appeal to supporters of Donald Trump. Notable whoppers included claims that Hillary Clinton was linked to murders of FBI agents, and that the pope had endorsed Trump. The polarising power of the reports was amplified by the growing tendency for people to read news on Facebook; via complex algorithms, the social networking site automatically serves its users more of what they like.
Without even knowing it, voters were corralled into online echo chambers that boosted reports they wanted to believe, true or not.
“What fake news does well is take nuanced issues and render them in very stark black and white terms,” says Joshua Benton, director of the Nieman Journalism Lab at Harvard University. “So Hillary Clinton is not someone who has a series of policy positions that you disagree with – instead she is a demon who has had FBI agents murdered.”
Like it or not, we are in a ‘post-truth’ era in which political discourse is dangerously divorced from reality. Can media truly challenge powerful vested interests?
An increasingly collaborative spirit and technological advances are giving the factcheckers a new edge
Concerns over the impact of fake stories are galvanising creative responses. Figures published by the Duke Reporters’ Lab, based in Duke University in the US, in February found 114 dedicated factchecking teams in 47 countries, compared to 44 teams when it started counting in 2014. An increasingly collaborative spirit and technological advances are giving factcheckers a new edge.
Back in Norway, Faktisk includes broadcasters NRK and TV2, as well as newspaper journalists, and members hope their open-source online model and tools will be replicated by media outlets in other countries. In Britain, independent factchecking organisation Full Fact checks claims from politicians of all colours, journalists and pressure groups.
“In a world where information comes at us from all sides, it is important to give people the tools they need to place informed trust. The alternative is a bad choice between blind faith and blind cynicism,” says Full Fact’s head of communications and impact, Phoebe Arnold.
The team crowdfunded its factchecking of the UK general election, packing its office with additional research staff and collaborating with experts, before trying to make it as easy as possible for time-pressured journalists and voters to understand the facts behind the claims.
Arnold admits it is a struggle to keep up. “There are always new claims being made on new platforms, often using new means of persuasion, whether the claims are accurate or not. We are building tools to automate some aspects of factchecking so that we can spot and respond to claims faster and on as many platforms as possible.”
Factchecking is not confined to Scandinavia, the UK and US. Chequeado is an independent, non-partisan factchecking organisation in Argentina, which has 183,000 followers on Twitter. Its team verifies facts presented by politicians, the media, entrepreneurs and social leaders, with the aim of improving public debate. Africa Check is based in Johannesburg, South Africa, with offices in Lagos, Nairobi and Dakar. The non-profit organisation was established in 2012 to promote accuracy in public debate and the media in Africa. Three people make up its full-time factchecking team.
In a world where information comes at us from all sides, it is important to give people the tools they need to place informed trust
Social media sites and search engines, such as Facebook and Google, have been widely criticised for facilitating the spread of fake news. Both are now taking steps to filter fabricated stories – albeit a response criticised by many as being incredibly slow. Facebook, which has more than 31m accounts registered in Britain, has reportedly deleted tens of thousands of bogus profiles, and pledged to stop promoting posts with a whiff of implausibility. It pledges to decrease the ranking of stories that people tend to read but not share, and has launched a third-party factchecking tool that alerts users to ‘disputed content’.
Facebook also ran newspaper adverts that offer 10 tips on spotting fake news and collaborated with Full Fact and major newsrooms to “address rumours and misinformation spreading online during the UK general election”.
A crowdfunded online publication from the Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales, called Wikitribune, will combine paid journalists with volunteer contributors. Those who donate will become supporters, and have a say in which subjects and story threads the site focuses on.
And Google said in January that it had banned nearly 200 publishers from its AdSense network – an ad placement service that automatically serves text and display ads online based on websites’ audiences – under a new policy designed to prevent producers of fake news exploiting its online advertising services.
“We are more cogent of the power of Facebook and Google to distribute information that is entirely bogus and they are starting to roll back some of that, which is good,” says Alexios Mantzarlis, who leads the International Fact-Checking Network at the Poynter Institute, a non-profit school for journalism based in Florida.
“If you kill off the profit incentive, you’ve killed off the business: following the money is the right way to go.”
Though the success of such steps is yet to be seen, these tech giants have at least begun to acknowledge the responsibility that accompanies their huge reach. The purveyors of fake news are far from vanquished, but there is something reassuring about the willingness of journalists to bury old rivalries and unite behind a shared cause.
“We are absolutely not going to tell people what are right politics and wrong politics,” says Faktisk’s Egeberg. “But what we can do is to separate facts from fiction – and then people can decide for themselves.”
Illustration by Pâté
Image of Matthew Green: Gerard Collett
This article is featured in issue 90 of Positive News magazine. Become a subscriber member to receive Positive News magazine delivered to your door, plus you’ll get access to exclusive member benefits.