Get Your Facts Straight: The Basics of Fact-Checking
By Deepak Adhikari, editor of South Asia Check
In Short: When we talk about evidence we mean facts - proven, verified, transparent, accountable information and methods of finding it. Learn from a practitioner on what it means to fact-check every piece of information you find and intend to use, and get prepared to do so even if you aren’t part of an organization or lack the resources to get more specialised support.
Fact-checking is the process by which someone verifies whether a piece of information is true or not or, better said, whether a piece of information is backed by verifiable facts or not.
Almost everyone knows that you can’t trust everything you read, see or hear. False information in the media or online can be small and insignificant, even a simple or honest mistake. But the spread of misinformation and disinformation can erode democratic institutions, promote authoritarian regimes, and undermine people’s ability to make informed decisions.
Fortunately, with fact-checking, there are easy-to-learn methods, processes and tools to expose and push back against false information in all its forms.
Of course, not all claims are fact-checkable. For example, you cannot fact-check people’s intentions, nor can you fact-check prophesies or predictions. Most fact-checks depend on publicly available evidence to debunk a claim.
As we start, it is important to mark the difference and connection between verification and fact-checking. Referencing from one of the most valued guidebooks out there - The Verification Handbook - verification is a discipline of its own that developed at the heart of journalism and has become regular practice in all areas of research, documentation and reporting done by citizen investigators, activists, human rights defenders, artists and many others in addition to journalists.
Fact-checking is an application of verification in journalism and beyond. Fact-checking has also developed into a profession and a field of its own, with hundreds of stand-alone fact-checking organisations and platforms emerging around the world over the past decade.
What connects fact-checking and verification is their goal of confirming the validity or exposing the falseness of (or “debunking”) information.
see more in this guidebook introduction by Craig Silverman: Fact-checking and Verification and in this article published on First Draft News, which helpfully illustrates the relationship between fact-checking, verification and debunking.
Image: the relationship between fact-checking, verification and debunking. Source: First Draft News / credit to @Mantzarlis. Screenshot taken by Tactical Tech on 24 April 2021.
A fact-checker’s mindset
In this digital age, almost anyone with a smartphone or basic photography and audio-video skills can become a citizen reporter or investigator. Digital technology has democratised the act of documenting and reporting, helping people conduct more in-depth research on issues and events virtually anywhere.
The digital revolution has empowered not only the media and NGOs but also citizen investigators to research and verify claims on the internet, especially ones that go viral on social media or other platforms. Fact-checking has always been vital, but it has taken on a new urgency as false claims, hoaxes, and conspiracy theories spread online.
False information spreads like wildfire on social media platforms and other websites, but citizen investigators can serve as a powerful force in the promotion of accuracy and credibility. In order to achieve this, we need to focus on the process of fact-checking and, most importantly, on nurturing what may be called a “fact-checker’s mindset.” Just as this Kit starts by emphasizing the set of behaviours, ethics, evidence-driven techniques, considerations and motivation that all-together nourish an “investigator’s mindset”, you can similarly build your own mindset of fact-checking and related practices that go beyond the tools you may be using. Tools can only take you so far.
By a fact-checker’s mindset we mean an ability to analyse and evaluate a piece of information (text, photo, video, meme, etc.) and make a judgement on its veracity. Your goal is to seek the evidence. To do that, you need to assess the sources of the data or facts, observe and make decisions based on findings.
False news spreads far, fast and wide, but by using open source tools, a collaborative attitude - as in working with others to be safer and more effective - and honing the skills, citizen investigators - and anyone for that matter - can quickly address false information as well as start spotting the distinctions, purposes and reach of different and often inter-connected actions and phenomena such as misinformation, disinformation and malinformation.
Making the difference: Misinformation, Disinformation, Malinformation
Misinformation is the unintended spread of false information, without an intention to harm others.
Disinformation is the fabrication and spread of false information with an intention to harm others.
Malinformation is the use and spread of genuine information with an intention to expose and harm others.
First Draft News, a nonprofit organisation that provides resources to fight harmful contents online, defines misinformation as “unintended mistakes such as inaccurate photo captions, dates, statistics, translations, or when satire is taken seriously.” Similarly, it defines disinformation as “fabricated or deliberately manipulated audio/visual content.”
This glossary of terms (archived here with Wayback Machine.) published by First Draft’s founder Claire Wardle is a helpful resource to understand the many facets of information disorder(s) we confront with nowadays. The glossary is part of an online resource called Information Disorder: The Definitional Toolbox, alongside two other articles: Mapping the Landscape (archived here) and Information Disorder: Useful Graphics (archived here.)
Image: “Types of Information Disorder”. Credit: Claire Wardle & Hossein Derakshan, 2017, source: https://medium.com/1st-draft/information-disorder-part-3-useful-graphics-2446c7dbb485 / downloaded on 24 April 2021.
This introductory guide to fact checking aims to help citizen investigators and everyone else interested to acquire key practices to help them identify and debunk false claims without amplifying them. Our hope is that it will not only help you limit the damage of misinformation and disinformation, but also reduce the amount.
Avoid amplifying false claims
Always keep in mind that debunking false claims can run the risk of amplifying their reach or intensifying their impact. Your analysis can make people more curious about checking out the very piece of information you are warning them against.
Fortunately, there are ways to mitigate these unintended consequences. At South Asia Check, we choose a claim to debunk on the basis of its virality. In other words, we examine if a claim has both news value and the potential to reach a wide audience if left unchecked. We archive the links to the source of the claim using Wayback Machine, which saves URLs. By not directly linking to the source, we try to minimise the amplification of the false claim. “Amplification, in any form, was their goal in the first place” (source: First Draft News) that’s why avoiding to link back to the original sources, in this case, helps to avoid playing their game.
This guide is appropriate for investigators working alone, collaborating with others, or researching with a small civil society organization. Some of the questions addressed here are:
What is your responsibility when fact-checking?
What are the main ethical and safety principles to keep in mind when fact-checking?
When should you publish your fact-checking, and in what form?
What do you do when the fact-checking doesn’t provide a definite answer?
What is the importance of collaboration in fact-checking, and how to verify the verification or how to fact-check the fact-checkers?
How to get started with fact-checking?
When coming across a viral or controversial photo, video, meme or text, it’s natural that someone with a fact-checking mindset would start examining it closely. Fact-checking starts with healthy scepticism and curiosity, and a lot of questions: who, what, how, where, when and why? But at its heart, fact-checking starts with one basic, foundational question: is this claim true?
Verification is at the heart of fact-checking.
A fact-checker should verify the material in context and avoid making general assumptions. Always look at the greater picture, how the misinformation is spreading and why, and who is behind it - not only the people but also the wider interests and the trends. Digging deeper into the background of people spreading false claims could reveal their associations with political parties.
In February 2021, social media users began to share a photo of a political rally in Nepal’s capital Kathmandu showing an Indian flag amid flags of the Prachanda-Madhav splinter faction of the Nepal Communist Party (the ruling party as of now/June 2021). This sparked a lot of controversy and fuelled conspiracy theories that India was involved in the opposition to the then-Prime Minister of Nepal.
A Google reverse image search (a search by image basically) and keyword search by fact-checkers of the South Asia Check showed that the photo was from a previous rally, and the Indian flag had been artificially inserted. Even deeper research revealed that those who shared the news were close to the ruling party, which was trying to discredit the opposition rally.
Screenshot from SouthAsiaCheck article “Old photo photoshopped to show Indian flag in February 10 demonstration”: https://southasiacheck.org/fact-check/old-photo-photoshopped-to-show-indian-flag-in-february-10-demonstration/. Screenshot taken by Tactical Tech on 10 June 2021.
Now, let’s walk through the process of fact-checking.
Find material to fact-check
When deciding on what to fact-check, it is crucial to think about the public interest.
Ask yourself questions such as:
How valuable is that piece of information for the public?
Will it make a difference for myself and/or help clarify something for other people?
False claims made by politicians warrant special considerations.
Is it a prime minister or a president, an opposition leader?
Is it a celebrity with a large following?
These are people whose words carry huge significance and implications. Their statements are likely to be believed by a huge number of people. Statements that are an obvious slip of the tongue, a gaffe, or a parody may not need to be fact-checked but merely pointed out. That’s because fact-checking should be about exposing deliberate falsehoods and not mistakes that happen due to human error. Also, parody is meant to be for fun and should not be taken seriously.
Archive the claim
Before you start fact-checking, it’s important first to archive the claim. Download the photo or video and take a screenshot of the post. The person who posted the potentially false claim could delete it after realising they made a mistake or that they had been spotted. But even if it’s deleted, it’s likely shared by users on multiple social media platforms.
Preserve and archive everything
For a detailed overview on how to archive and how to find archived online content, please read our Kit guide Retrieving and Archiving Information from Websites. In the guide you will find tips and tricks as well as recommendations of tools to use in different contexts.
The most common tools to use when archiving online content for future reference are:
Internet Archive - to search and retrieve previously archived content.
WayBack Machine - an Internet Archive tool that allows you to save/archive webpages manually online, and to retrieve archived webpages/websites. It can have difficulties saving and showing images as well as webpage graphics.
Archive Today - an online tool that allows you to save/archive webpages manually, and to retrieve archived webpages/websites. It is similar to Wayback Machine but it has the advantage of taking page screenshots of webpages, which makes images and graphs easier to preserve.
Research the claim
Research begins with questions about a statement or a claim you’d like to fact check. Using keywords, run a search through major newspaper websites, websites of relevant ministry, department and research organizations. Often, keyword searches on search engines and social media platforms will turn up further clues and leads. Has a credible source published a report about it? Have other fact-checkers debunked the claim?
How to evaluate the credibility of a source
Your research will take you to many websites and experts that can help enrich your fact-check and lend credibility to it, but only if those sources are credible themselves.
For websites, check the About Us pages to see if authorized people or institutions run it.
For experts, check their background and history:
Are they affiliated with a credible institution, such as a university or think tank?
Does their research follow standard methodologies?
Have they been cited by reputed journals and outlets?
Does the source have a track record of authority on the topic?
To get started or to polish your skills on how to verify sources, take a look at these resources:
If it’s not Verified it’s not valid”, section from the ETI Kit’s “What Makes an Investigation” chapter.
Evaluating Evidence and Information Sources, guide from the ETI Kit
First Draft’s Toolbox for Newsgathering and Verification.
Once you finish your online search, you can turn to human sources - the experts.
Use social media platforms such as LinkedIn or Twitter to find sources.
Tell them about why you want to talk. Before interviewing an expert, study up on the topic because most experts are turned off and won’t take you seriously if you don’t get the basics right from the start. A strong foundation of background research online will enable you to obtain higher quality interviews with these expert sources.
Sometimes experts will refer to a book, a dataset or a report, which in turn could lead you to more human sources. Experts can explain context and help you understand the issue better.
Reaching out to human sources, planning and conducting interviews
For more methods and tips related to identifying and interviewing sources, read these ETI Kit guides:
While text and photos published online are relatively easy to fact-check using online tools, video poses a tremendous challenge to fact-checkers. Try to find the original video or the source. Keyword searches on social media and observational and listening skills are helpful to debunk a viral video.
There are a few tools such as Invid, a browser extension that breaks video into key frames, which can be used in reverse image search. Similarly, the YouTube data viewer gives you the time and date of a video’s first upload on YouTube (not when the video was originally made).
But the most important tool is your brain.
Here’s an example of a good observational skill at work.
In August 2020, I helped AltNews, an Indian fact-checking outlet, to debunk a video from Nepal that had been viral among Indian social media users. The video clip showed ‘journalists’ shooting a video of a victim of a road accident. Indian social media users jumped on the clip, claiming that it showed the callousness of journalists. I spoke to a police spokesman who said the video was staged. But the most important clue came from an Alt News fact-checker who watched the video repeatedly and found that a camera-person was directing the actors. It helped the fact-checker to establish with certainty that it was a staged video. You can gather a lot from the video or photo itself, but you will have to observe it keenly and repeatedly.
Use your observation and research skills to identify location sources of photos and videos and think about the keywords that could go with the video in order to reach to its source. Use geolocation tools such as Google Earth, Street View, BingMaps, HereWeGo or others to geo-locate them.
Learn how to geolocate
There are plenty of guides and tutorials out there to help you learn and practice how to geolocate photos and videos and how to identify and verify images from a certain location or event you might be interested in. These resources will provide a good starting point:
A Beginner’s Guide to Geolocating Videos, by Eliot Higgins, Bellingcat
How to Geolocate a Video or Image in 5 Steps, International Fact-checking Network
Quick reference guides for verifying eyewitness photos, from First Draft News (archived link)
Quick reference guides for verifying eyewitness videos, from First Draft News (archived link)
Advanced Guide on Verifying Video Content, by Aric Toler, Bellingcat
How to Conduct Comprehensive Video Collection, by Aric Toler, Bellingcat
Using Maps to See Beyond the Obvious, by Alison Killing, ‘Exposing the Invisible’ Kit
Publish your fact-check or investigate further
You may be fact-checking with the purpose of publishing a fact-check as such: in a blog, on your social media account or on a website you work with.
You may also be fact-checking as part of an longer investigation process because everything you end up saying and publishing once the investigative work is done needs to be “bullet-proof” - meaning that it can stand up to scrutiny / examination, is verifiable by others and is confirmed from multiple authentic sources. When investigating a wider topic, you still need to fact-check every claim, every piece of information you collect. The difference is that instead of publishing the fact-check itself, you can keep it at hand, well-documented and safe, in case your published investigation story backfires and its credibility is challenged by anyone. Thorough fact-checking and documentation of the process can keep you safe if later you need to justify claims and protect your credibility, or in case you get sued for defamation by someone you’ve investigated. For instance, “bullet-proof” investigation and fact-checking was key in getting this lawsuit launched against OCCRP (Organised Crime and Corruption Reporting Project) reporters settled after a costly and time-consuming two-year court battle.
Whatever your intention or end goal, your fact-checking methods and process are the same.
After talking to sources, running background checks, having all the links ready and identifying authentic sources to support your findings, it is time to write about your findings (if that was your plan) or to decide how to include them in your further investigation.
Here are some basics to keep in mind when writing and publishing a fact-check:
Evidence should be the focus.
Often-times, fact-checks are about contested or controversial topics. The first step is to illustrate the context and claims.
The standard writing rules - active voice, short and simple sentences - apply to fact-check reports as well.
Some fact-checks require more words than others. So, while brevity is needed, it should not come at the cost of clarity.
Components of a thorough fact-check
Should you want to publish a fact-check on your or your organisation/group’s website/blog or social media, etc., here are the essential aspects to keep in mind for a thorough presentation of it:
The initial statements or claims: Some fact-checkers paraphrase the statements or claims to remove unnecessary words and phrases. While this approach has merit, often-times it’s better to have the relevant claim or statement verbatim (as in, the full original statement) so that readers know what’s being verified and/or challenged. If your subject has made a series of claims, break them into 3-4 subheads to make it digestible. Then, fact-check them one by one.
Links to sources: Make sure you provide links to the authentic sources, the experts you quote are identified and their bio linked to the text. Also use tools such as www.archive.is or https://archive.org/web/ to save the links because URLs can change or break.
A summary of your findings: You can summarise your findings in bullet points at the top and follow with the detailed write-up. It’s crucial to include the fact-checking process in the report so that anyone can replicate it.
Visual aids: Fact-checks can be text-heavy, but they shouldn’t be visually unappealing. Visuals (photos, videos, graphics or screenshots) illuminate the reports. Check, for instance, this simple but effective way in which UK-fact-checking group FullFact is is designing and illustrating their fact-checks.
A final grade or verdict: At the end of the piece, you can also give a verdict such as false, misleading or half-true. You can also include a section at the end summarizing your findings.
A perspective from India
False claims and violence
In July 2018 in a hamlet (small human settlement) in the Indian state of Maharashtra, five men from a nomadic community were lynched by an angry mob. They were victims of rumours that spread through WhatsApp, a Facebook-owned messaging service widely used in India.
The men had travelled about 500 kilometres from another village to attend a weekly market in Rainpada. After one of them spoke to a local girl, villagers suspected the group of being child kidnappers and began to beat them, according to Indian news outlet Scroll.
The villagers might have acted because of photos of children circulating on WhatsApp. A fact-check by AltNews later found the images were from a 2013 chemical attack in Syria. The July 2018 massacre in Rainpada was just one of a series of killings in India linked to viral WhatsApp messages. The murders prompted the messaging app to limit forwarding messages to just five chats at once in India.
India is a case study of what happens when millions of people, aided by cheap mobile data and fear mongering, believe in online hoaxes and act on them. India has remained a divided country for the past several decades. Communal forces have used the divide to bring out tensions for political gains. Now such forces have used disinformation to spread hatred against minorities. “There is a deluge of political and communal misinformation in India. As observed across the world, the medical misinformation increased manifolds during the pandemic,” says Jignesh Patel, a fact-checker with AltNews.
Disinformation and discrimination
With the spread of COVID-19 and subsequent enforcement of the nationwide lockdown, doctored videos and false messages about the pandemic began circulating on social media platforms in India. The country’s rapidly growing social media users were susceptible to misinformation.
Disinformation about Tablighi Jamat, a Muslim missionary movement, whose members had congregated in its headquarters in New Delhi in mid-March 2020, is a case in point. While the gathering had turned out to be a super spreader event, soon a video claiming that Muslims were licking utensils to spread COVID-19 went viral on social media. AltNews and other fact-checking outlets used online and offline tools to debunk the false content.
First, AltNews contacted the administrator of a Facebook page, who told them the people were Muslims from Kyrgyzstan. It also ran a keyword search on Google using “Muslims licking utensils,” which turned up several results including a video from July 31, 2018. The video confirmed that they were Dawoodi Bohras, a Muslim community who live in Indian and other Asian countries. They adhered to the principle of not wasting any food, hence the licking of utensils.
The misinformation about the community spread in the wake of violence against Muslims in early 2020. Dubbing the event “coronajihad”, with an accompanying hashtag, India’s partisan TV channels fanned the communal discord, helping increase anti-Muslim discrimination in the country ruled by the Hindu nationalist government.
In an article published on the website of Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, researchers from Princeton University wrote that government officials and news anchors exacerbated the long-existing tensions by spreading misinformation. “In countries like India, which has a sizeable Muslim population, the false stories circulating about the pandemic have mostly blamed on that community for COVID-19’s rapid progression,” it said. The article also referred to rumours on social media in Nepal alleging that two Muslim women who had accidentally dropped their money on the road were COVID-19 infected and had spit on their bills to spread the disease.
Nepal and India share an 1800-kilometre open and porous border. There’s a potential for cross-border fact-checking as rumours easily spread across the border. In December 2020, I was involved in a cross-border fact-checking of a viral claim about Nepal’s Supreme Court banning loudspeakers in mosques. Indian social media users were sharing the high court’s interim order (in Nepali language) along with the claim that loudspeakers were banned in mosques in Nepal. In reality, in response to a petition, the top court had issued an interim order to mosques to lower the volume of loudspeakers in Nepal.
Disinformation as a political instrument
Political actors have increasingly used sophisticated methods to spread political disinformation in the country. On April 2, 2021, one of India’s opposition parties shared on its official social media channel a blurred video of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi waving at an empty field. The grainy video claimed that Modi would go to the extent of waving at an empty field for an election photo-op. Boom Live, one of India’s leading fact-checkers, debunked the video. It found that the original video was edited to remove the sound from the cheering crowd and people standing at a distance blurred to show it was empty.
A Nepal experience
Since its inception, South Asia Check has striven to hold public officials to account. After it was set up in 2015, the pioneering outlet published fact-checks of statements made by prime ministers, ministers, parliamentarians and politicians.
It has been tedious work. Sometimes after listening to TV interviews for several hours, the research wouldn’t yield any fact-checking material. That’s because either most sources wouldn’t make claims around facts and figures or they were simply not fact-checkable.
Note: Non-fact-checkable information
Not all claims are fact-checkable. For example, you cannot fact-check people’s intentions, nor can you fact-check prophesies or predictions. Most fact-checks depend on publicly available evidence to debunk a claim.
While misinformation pre-dated COVID-19, the pandemic has amplified it. After the government imposed a nationwide lockdown in March 2020, Nepalis were confined to their homes, and the internet became their primary source of news, with social media platforms facilitating daily news consumption.
In March 2020, a meme began to circulate on Facebook along with claims that gargling warm water mixed with salt or vinegar can eliminate COVID-19. We at South Asia Check fact-checked the false claims.
Image from South Asia Check website with caption: “This meme circulating on social media in Nepal claims that drinking plenty of water, or gargling with warm water mixed with salt or vinegar removes the coronavirus from the throat.” Source: https://southasiacheck.org/fact-check/covid-19-whats-circulating-on-social-media-and-what-are-the-facts/. Screenshot taken by Tactical tech on 10 June 2021.
But that was not the only meme. More COVID-19 related misinformation was circulating on closed chat apps such as WhatsApp and Facebook Messenger. We also debunked conspiracy theories spread on YouTube channels that ranged from false comparison between seasonal flu and coronavirus or misinterpretation of the findings of a report about COVID-19 deaths in Italy or claims that masks don’t protect people against COVID-19.
There were many unknowns about the novel coronavirus/COVID-19. To overcome this, we turned to authentic and credible institutions such as the World Health Organization/WHO and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention/CDC. We also spoke to Nepali experts - the infectious disease specialists, virologists and public health officials. They provided valuable insights and evidence that helped us fight misinformation and disinformation.
Politicians make baseless claims with impunity all the time, but the trouble is when those baseless claims get amplified to a wide audience. Nepal’s Prime Minister K.P. Sharma Oli, who came to power in February 2018 through a populist election campaign, has been subject to our fact-checks more than any other leader. With a disdain for intellectual discourse and tendency to present himself as an expert on any subject, Oli has provided us with ample material to fact-check.
Early on, he started to peddle pseudoscience, offering home remedies to cure COVID-19. In a video clip of a virtual conference with chief ministers in April 2020, he touted drinking hot water and using steam therapy as cures for COVID-19. He also warned people against eating cold food such as ice cream, despite the fact that the WHO had already debunked the false claim.
After Prime Minister Oli dissolved the House of Representatives in December 2020 and announced general elections, his party and his rival faction sought to shore up their support. In an effort to sway voters, Oli used political platforms to defend his government’s moves and exaggerate its achievements. Misinformation from the top has tremendous impact because of its power to reach the biggest audience. So, we continued to pursue Prime Minister Oli to hold him accountable to his words.
We also found that false claims spread quickly from below. For the last year, we have turned our attention to viral misinformation on social media. Again, the COVID-19 pandemic provided fertile ground for fact-checking.
For example in early May, a photo of a small outdoor toilet circulated on social media with claims that it was built at the cost of 2.5 million Nepali rupees (US $21,500) by the COVID-19 hospital in south-central Nepal. Our fact-check found that it was a five-year-old image from the Indian state of Gujarat.
We also debunked a message that circulated on WhatsApp and Facebook Messenger with claims that an Indian student had found a ‘home remedy’ for COVID-19 and it was accepted by WHO. While we couldn’t determine the source of the message, we cited WHO and spoke to experts to prove the claim false.
Misinformation easily crosses borders. Hoaxes about red mercury, a non-existent material, had spread through social media in India in September 2020. Claims about it being a precious material circulated on Hindi-language websites, prompting fact-checkers to debunk the claim. Then in October 2020, Nepali social media users started talking about it. Some users posted messages on Facebook groups urging people to contact them if they have old radio or TV sets with red mercury.
Why does breaking news and disasters trigger misinformation?
Misinformation spreads in times of crisis and uncertainty. People become susceptible to false or misleading claims because they want to know more. Social media users as well as mainstream media bombard them with conflicting and inaccurate information. When people don’t have knowledge about something such as COVID-19, they are scared and they tend to spread misinformation.
Lack of media literacy also poses a serious problem. Sometimes, people don’t have a strong understanding of how the media works and how news is produced. In those cases, people tend to share photos, memes, or content that they find on social media without checking where it came from or whether it’s true. In most cases, they do so with good intentions, like to alert their family and friends.
But misinformation can be harmful because people tend to believe it and act on it. In order for people to make informed decisions, they need accurate and reliable facts.
For example, a video of an avalanche that occurred on January 11, 2021 in north-central Nepal was circulated along with claims that it showed the February 7, 2021 disaster in Uttarakhand. Boom Live, an Indian fact-checking outlet, found the video was from Nepal.
How to stay safe while fact-checking
Most of the fact-checking work can be done from behind a desk. Unlike reporting, fact-checking, especially in the context of online misinformation spread, hardly involves going out in the field. Nonetheless, this method can expose you to a huge amount of messages, photos and videos, some of which can affect your well-being.
Mental health concerns
When fact-checking, you may be exposed to traumatic images such as killings, floods, landslides, violence or torture. You may experience trauma by witnessing violent or distressing scenes on screen. Like photographers dealing with such images, fact-checkers can be at risk of developing vicarious trauma.
While exposure to limited amounts of traumatic imagery is unlikely to cause major distress in most cases, repeated exposure to distressing or gruesome photos or videos could cause secondary or vicarious trauma, according to the Dart Center for Journalism and Trauma, a project of Columbia Journalism School. A resource developed by the center lists tips including how to eliminate repeat exposure, reduce or adjust the size and brightness of your computer screen and take frequent screen breaks.
“As fact-checkers, you may come across a lot of violent content and imagery that is disturbing. It is important to be aware that fact-checking such content can impact your mental health and fact-checkers should take professional help as and when required,” says Patel of AltNews. “It is also important to talk to colleagues and share experiences.”
Digital safety is important for fact-checkers because they scour the web to research and investigate false claims. As a fact-checker, you leave a lot of digital footprints. Use end-to-end encrypted chat apps such as Signal to communicate and privacy-aware search engines such as DuckDuckGo to research.
Read the Safety First guide in this Kit to learn the basics about staying digitally, physically and psychologically safe and aware of potential risks by adopting essential good practices and tools to keep your human sources, yourself and your evidence protected.
You should also frequently delete your search history and be aware of phishing and other internet scams. “Fact-checkers should always be careful when coordinating and interacting with unverified sources on social media. In the digital world, all of us should ascertain the credibility and the credentials of our sources,” Patel says.
In my own experience, you have to make sure that your data is protected. You also have to be careful about your communication with your sources because once you send any text, photo or video, the data is no longer under your control. Be aware of the pitfalls of digital communication and try to protect your devices from attacks so that they are safe and secure. This also goes for protecting others, such as the sources whose expertise you relied on during the fact-checking process.
Fact-checkers also have to deal with backlash over their work. It’s crucial to think through the consequences before sharing content on websites or social media. Once you start doing this on a regular basis - wearing the fact-checker hat - you are always under scrutiny. Most fact-checkers operate online, making it easier for other people to criticize their work. They can even harass you by trolling. Often-times it’s better to ignore than to engage with such behaviour.
To avoid harassment from trolls or hackers, the Estonian fact-checking organisation Propastop maintains strict anonymity for all of their fact-checkers and researchers.
Note that if a reader points out an error in your fact-check, address it. Strong correction policy ensures your credibility. Always engage with honest commenters and be transparent about your process.
Fact-checking the fact-checkers
There are two types of fact-checking:
Most magazines and news outlets double-check facts and figures as part of their editorial process. This type of fact-check is carried out before the report’s publication to ensure accuracy. Journalists, researchers and others conduct this kind of fact-checking throughout their entire process of information collection and always in pre-publication stage.
A post-publication fact-check is pursued by fact-checking outlets such as South Asia Check, AfricaCheck and Chequeado, for instance. We at South Asia Check fact-check claims made by public figures after publication, meaning after the person has made the claim in a public speech, in writing or elsewhere. The purpose is to make public officials accountable to their statements and claims. This is also aimed at promoting transparency about the claim and accuracy about the facts and figures.
While we strive to be transparent about our fact-checking process, fact-checkers are often accused of being biased. Indeed, bias is an inherent human trait. All of us have biases that can influence our work. Experts have identified various biases such as confirmation bias, which is a preference for information that supports one’s biases. It can be difficult to shake off your belief system and be open to and accept views contrary to yours. When fact-checking, you must strive to suspend your belief system and be open and impartial.
So, who fact-checks the fact-checker?
That’s where the International Fact-checking Network (IFCN), based at the Poynter Institute in the United States, comes in. The IFCN has developed a code of principles for fact-checkers. Fact-checkers around the world can apply to be a signatory of the code of principles. There are now 95 (as of 10 June 2021) fact-checking outlets including South Asia Check that are signatories of the IFCN code of principles.
Screenshot from IFCN’s Code of Principles webpage: https://ifcncodeofprinciples.poynter.org/know-more/the-commitments-of-the-code-of-principles. Screenshot taken by Tactical Tech on 10 June 2021.
The IFCN sets the global standard for fact-checking. Every year, it assesses whether its members adhere to the code of principles. The process of certification is rigorous and thorough. A team of assessors vets dozens of criteria for membership. Some criteria include whether the member is non-partisan, its transparency of sources, correction policy, and whether it follows a consistent methodology. South Asia Check has included the required information on its website: https://southasiacheck.org/about/.
Fact-checkers are required to uphold high professional and ethical standards. When your job is to hold powerful people to account, you have to be willing to face similar scrutiny from others. One way of doing it is to make the process of fact-checking replicable (able to be reproduced by others) so it’s transparent. One easy way to make the fact-checking process more transparent is simply to describe the process: what methods and tools were used, which experts consulted, and the reasoning behind the verdict.
It is also crucial to admit that as humans we are not perfect and we can make mistakes. The key is to correct as soon as you realise the mistake.
There are various ways to make a correction or admit a mistake once you’ve published a fact-check, whether on your website or on social media, as long as you are transparent about it to the public.
At South Asia Check, for instance, we tend to add corrections at the end of an article/fact-check, such as we did in this case:
Screenshot from: South Asia Check “Purported government text message about snap curfew was a hoax”: https://southasiacheck.org/fact-check/purported-government-text-message-about-covid-curfew-was-a-hoax/, Screenshot taken by Tactical Tech on 10 June 2021.
AFP’s FactCheck website, for instance, dedicates a page to its corrections explaining the methodology they use and pointing to all the articles that have been edited as a result - see https://factcheck.afp.com/corrections
How can fact-checking be an integral part of investigation?
Fact-checking used to be the domain of magazines because of their lengthy production timeline. In this 2017 piece in TIME - “Here’s How the First Fact-Checkers Were Able to Do Their Jobs Before the Internet” -, Merrill Fabry writes that the magazine was probably the first to hire fact-checkers. Nancy Ford, hired by the magazine in early 1923, was TIME’s first fact-checker, whose portfolio included “verifying basic dates, names, and facts in completed TIME articles.”
The New Yorker magazine is well known for its rigorous fact-checking process. There, it’s customary for reporters to submit their notebooks along with the piece. In an excerpt published in Columbia Journalism Review from his book The Art of Making Magazines, Peter Canby wrote about his experience as the head of the magazine’s fact-checking department:
“You begin by consulting the writer about how the piece was put together and using the writer’s sources as well as our own departmental sources. We then essentially take the piece apart and put it back together again.”
The growth of fact-checking initiatives around the world
But fact-checking as a standalone practice doesn’t have a very long history. In the United States, the Annenberg Public Policy Center at the University of Pennsylvania founded Factcheck.org in 2003, and PolitiFact, which popularised political fact-checking, in 2008. The election of US President Donald Trump - who “helped” introduce the term fake news into mainstream conversations - brought a renewed prominence to fact-checking in the United States. By 2019, the number of fact-checking organisations grew to 188 in more than 60 countries (up from 44 fact-checkers in 2014) according to Poynter, and to 341 in at least 102 countries by June 2021, according to the latest (2021) global census by Duke Reporter’s Lab, a center that also aggregates and maintains a world map of active and inactive fact-checking initiatives.
While longform magazines practiced fact-checking for decades, the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project (OCCRP) was perhaps the first non-profit reporting organisation to apply it in investigative reporting by setting up a fact-checkers team and standard procedures applied to all its investigators and articles. OCCRP offered a window into its fact-checking process in an article published in January 2020. Birgit Brauer, head of fact-checking at OCCRP, explained how fact-checking became an integral part of investigations. “Of course, we check the key facts that are typical in an OCCRP follow-the-money investigation, like bank transactions, corrupt politicians and their connections, and the sequence of events,” she said. “But it’s the small, seemingly innocuous stuff that surprises reporters sometimes.”
Requiring a reporter to show proof for every sentence can serve as a protection against possible lawsuits and correction after publications of the investigations. But the OCCRP has gone a step further. “Amid the proliferation of online dis- and misinformation over the past several years, the process has taken on a new importance. OCCRP has found that an uncompromising standard for accuracy builds trust between its newsroom and its readers,” wrote the OCCRP team.
I experienced the OCCRP’s legendary fact-checking myself when I reported a story about a Nepali migrant who travelled to the US via Latin America. My editor Nathan Jaccard had warned me before I left for the migrant’s home town west of Kathmandu:
“The different pieces will go through a fact-checking process that is quite tough. So, we will need proof of everything. It can be recorded interviews, official documents, written notes, links, etc.” he wrote to me in January 2020. “It’s important to think about this before going on the reporting trip as sometimes we forget to keep all the proofs and then struggle to get them back (it has happened to me!).”
In July 2020, I braced myself for what I believed would be something akin to grilling by a prosecutor. In my defence, I had assembled dozens of photographs, WhatsApp messages, court documents, transcripts of interviews and reports from government and non-government sources. In the end, I managed to satisfy the OCCRP fact-checkers after a few rounds of replies. But the lesson wasn’t lost on me: the gruelling process was worth it. After the fact-checking, the story was essentially bullet-proof. I was sure that no mistake had crept in because of the rigorous, thorough process.
What are the challenges of fact-checking?
Social media platforms have dramatically changed the reach and impact of misinformation and disinformation. While false information goes viral easily, debunking it can feel like a losing battle. Fact-checking is built on the foundation of accuracy, fairness and objectivity. But is it possible to always uphold these ideals while fact-checking?
There has been a mismatch between the reach and spread of viral content and an attempt to fact-check that viral content. Jignesh Patel, the fact-checker at AltNews in India, says fact-checks do not receive the same readership compared to the corresponding misinformation. “The time a fact-checker invests in checking the veracity of a claim is far more than what a conspiracy theorist or disinformation actor would need to fabricate a theory or propagate a false claim. We are constantly battling against the time to put out verified facts,” he told me.
Another criticism of fact-checking is the tendency to see false claims in narrow terms such as true or false, but there is a grey area that encompasses a range from outright lies to exaggeration to manipulation to conspiracy theories.
At South Asia Check, we label our findings as fake, false, misleading, exaggeration or lies. But according to Patel, AltNews has a spectrum of fact-check ratings including: hard to categorize, false, mostly false, half true, mostly true and true. “Moreover, quality fact-checkers ensure that the text of the fact-check captures the nuance that the reader needs to be aware of,” he says.
Another challenge fact-checkers face when it comes to misinformation is how much context you should provide to the readers. Some fact-checkers begin with the false statement and debunk it without providing much context about it. Every rumour, hoax, or piece of false news spreads in a certain context. For example, due to COVID-19, a lot of misinformation on the disease is being spread because people lack knowledge about the disease. During recent protests demanding restoration of monarchy in Nepal, a year-old photo of a rally was falsely presented as recent. It’s important to find out who is spreading the false news and study the behaviour of the actors.
Misinformation and disinformation actors have grown sophisticated and well-organized. In many countries, they have been able to manipulate public opinions while in some, malicious foreign actors have used these tools to spread propaganda. They are often ahead of the fact-checkers in adapting to new tools and technology.
“Misinformation is a complex societal issue that requires a multi-pronged solution. It is unfair to expect that fact-checkers alone can rise up to the challenge,” Patel says. “We need the journalistic as well as educational approach to tackle the issue. Especially, media literacy campaigns to spread awareness among the masses and educate them about the issue. Furthermore, we need better technological solutions for a wider disbursement of fact-checks.”
One of the ways that AltNews has risen to the technological challenge is by building an application that instantly gives you fact-checks corresponding to an image or video that has already been fact-checked. “We built this app in response to tackle the repackaging of a piece of visual information with different claims,” he says.
Fact-checkers are often accused of amplifying misinformation in the process of debunking it. In order to avoid amplifying false claims, fact-checkers should closely examine the numbers of engagement (followers, comments and likes) of a claim before deciding to fact-check it. AltNews is very careful about highlighting and writing on instances of misinformation spread by individual social media users, according to Patel. “We avoid amplifying the misinformation by using screenshots over embeds, clearly labelling the viral content as false, taking calls to address the misinformation only when it is viral or dangerous or inciting violence,” he says.
Even fact-checking, itself a powerful tool, can be weaponised to settle scores with opponents. Fact-checking should be limited to checking facts or claims and should not venture into someone’s intent or opinions. As former US senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan once said,
“Everyone is entitled to his opinion, but not to his own facts.”
Misinformation thrives in an environment where there’s a lack of reliable and credible information. Fact-checkers should work with people and institutions that hold data - the government, statisticians and research organisations.
While a lack of accessible databases to back up the fact-check is a major challenge, lack of skills to fact-check and verify viral content is another one. And, that’s where this kit comes in.
Credible sources of information are crucial.
The government often holds vast amounts of information, but it’s not willing to allow public access to it. Based on my experience fact-checking viral claims on COVID-19, here’s a caveat: be cautious while fact-checking on a disease like COVID-19 whose science is still evolving and there are no definite answers. If there’s room for ambiguity, we should state it in clear terms. As fact-checkers and investigators, we have to be honest, transparent and state our limitations.
Published on 10 June 2021
Articles and Guides
A Field Guide to “Fake News” and Other Information Disorders, by Public Data Lab and First Draft.
Fact-Checking & Verification Resources. Compiled by the Global Investigative Journalism Network (GIJN).
Guide to Fact-Checking Investigative Stories, by Nils Hanson at GIJN, 3 November 2021.
Fake news was a thing long before Donald Trump — just ask the ancient Greeks. by Peter S. Field / The Conversation.
First Draft News - Training Library. A free library of training content provided by First Draft’s team, including online courses, toolkits and other resources designed to help researchers and the public to address misinformation.
How to fact-check viral post shared via WhatsApp. By FactCheckHub/Niyi Oyedeji.
How to fact-check coronavirus misinformation on social media. By Daniel Funke and PolitiFact May 26, 2020.
Learn to spot misinformation and stop it in its tracks. By Data Detox Kit, Tactical Tech.
Verification Handbook 1: A Definitive Guide To Verifying Digital Content For Emergency Coverage. Edited by Craig Silverman.
Verification Handbook 2: A Guide To Online Search And Research Techniques For Using UGC And Open Source Information In Investigations. Edited by Craig Silverman.
Verification Handbook 3: For Disinformation And Media Manipulation. Edited by Craig Silverman.
The Full Fact Toolkit: Simple practical tools anyone can use to identify bad information. By FullFact fact-checking team.
The presence of unexpected biases in online fact-checking. Peer-reviewed academic research paper by S Park, J Y Park, J-H Kang, M. Cha; in the Harvard Kennedy School’s Misinformation Review, 27 January 2021.
7 steps to better fact-checking. By Angie Drobnic Holan, PolitiFact, 20 August 2014.
Projects, Tools and Databases
Amnesty International’s Citizen Evidence Lab. An online space to share best practices, emerging techniques, and tools for conducting investigations, combating mis- and dis-information, and contributing to a better-informed public.
Duke Reporter’s Lab - Worldwide Fact-checkers Map and global fact-checking news section.
Hoaxy. A project of Indiana University’s Observatory on Social Media (OSoMe) helping to visualize the spread of information on Twitter.
InVID. A platform providing tools / plugins to detect, authenticate and check the reliability and accuracy of newsworthy video files and video content spread via social media. Also see InVID’s updated extension WeVerify for videos.
Verification Junkie. A directory of tools for verifying, fact checking and assessing the validity of eyewitness reports and user generated content online. Managed by Josh Stearns.
Conspiracy theory - A theory, an argument or a piece of information or an interpretation of an event, but lacking in solid evidence, that many may find convincing and is difficult to prove.
Debunking - To bust popular myths through fact-checking.
Disinformation - A piece of information, photo, video or meme spread with ill-intent in order to mislead people.
Disinformation actor - Someone who spreads false information with ill-intent in order to mislead the public.
Encryption - A way of using clever mathematics to encrypt, or scramble, information so that it can only be decrypted and read by someone who has a particular piece of information, such as a password or an encryption key. (source: Security-in-a-Box)
End-to-end encryption - term used to describe encryption level of messaging apps; it means that data is encrypted before sending to the receiving party, and only they can decrypt the data, not even the service provider can.
Fact-checking - An act of verifying a piece of information, statement or claim to establish its accuracy or truthfulness.
False claim - A claim that is not based on facts and can be challenged.
Fake (false) news - A piece of information designed to mislead the public to the benefit of certain groups or individuals.
Hoax - A piece of information intended to deceive people.
Malinformation - First Draft defines it as “deliberate publication of private information for personal or corporate rather than public interest, such as revenge porn.” It can also refer to “deliberate change of context, date or time of genuine content.”
Misinformation - A piece of information, photo, video or meme spread without ill-intention.
Misinformation actor - Someone who spreads falsehood without ill-intention.
Troll - in Internet context and slang, a troll is a person who launches insulting messages and intentionally upsets people on the Internet. (source: Wikipedia)