This article by the readers’ editor of the Observer was republished with permission.
Here are some headlines. “Nine Italian nuns pregnant after offering shelter to north African immigrants”. “Scientists in Saudi Arabia say women should be categorised as mammals, not humans”. “Man falls from bridge while playing Pokémon Go”. As an intelligent reader, you can probably guess these stories are fake, but they were widely read and shared on social media and some found their way into established newspapers.
They are just a few of the stories exposed as false by a new Turkish fact-checking agency. Teyit.org is one of more than 100 such groups active today. According to a report from the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism, more than 90% have been established since 2010; about 50 have launched in the past two years alone. “During the run-up to the 2016 US presidential election, we saw often gross distortions of the truth by the Trump campaign,” says the report. “And in the UK, the lead up to the EU referendum saw talk of a ‘post-fact’ or ‘post-truth’ world.”
The menace of fake news is clear: fictions fabricated as fact can do real harm to the democratic process and to the peaceful functioning of society.
Fact-checking has always been an essential practice in any established news organisation, but the plethora of information on the internet – some of it wilfully misleading – requires new approaches to verification, some of them automated. Full Fact, the British charity, is working on a mobile app for journalists to instantly check statistics they hear spouted at press conferences and enable them to challenge their veracity. The Washington Post now fact-checks tweets from President Trump and appends a note to them when it finds inaccuracies. In France, Le Monde has established an entire fact-checking division within the newspaper to crack down on online fake news.
So how do independent fact-checkers go about their work? Teyit.org invites social media users to report suspect stories they find on the web via a WhatsApp hotline. “We want to develop critical thinking habits within the reading public of Turkey,” said founder Mehmet Atakan Foça, on a visit to our offices last week. Since it opened three months ago, his agency has received some 3,000 alerts requiring investigation and has debunked a series of fake stories, alerting news media and the public in the process. With funding from the British embassy in Ankara and the European Endowment for Democracy, Teyit.org wants to develop software to help in its analysis. It’s early days, but it is encouraged by the response from the public.
In a country under a state of emergency, Foça and his colleagues have to tread a careful line and are anxious to be seen to be non-partisan in what has become a highly politicised society. And they are aware that journalism could suffer if measures that might be taken against fake news were used as an excuse to crack down on the established press.
That, of course, is a danger in any country. In the US, Donald Trump has declared war on the media, damning as “fake news” any reporting that exposes his flaws – a trait now embraced by the angry everywhere. As I write, my email is full of accusations of “fake news” applied to pieces of responsible journalism. It’s easier to dismiss something as fake than face hard truths, just as it is easier to reach for “alternative facts” when reality doesn’t fit the agenda.
Checking and double-checking the facts is just one of the tools available to journalists covering powerful people who lie. The Reuters Institute recently invited ideas from around the world and published some wise advice last week. “Call lies lies and falsehoods falsehoods. Not doing so undermines credibility and trustworthiness with the public (even if it may infuriate partisans). In turn, cover the partisans who support powerful people who lie,” it suggests.
“Get outside the bubble, away from official sources and insider group-think. Focus on the substance, not the form, so follow the money and cover consequential and binding decisions made rather than provocations and conspicuous displays of ‘doing something’. Collaborate. Follow up on each other’s questions. Share notes on sources’ credibility.
“Don’t lead with the false statement in the headline or the standfirst, and don’t succumb to false equivalence (‘Views on shape of the Earth differ’). Don’t let yourself be distracted by endless tweets and provocative asides – cover the story, not the person. Focusing on every provocation and false statement ends up rewarding the lies with publicity.”