The coalition for factual information and informed public discourse is stronger than ever

This Friday, on April 2, fact-checkers celebrate the fifth International Fact-Checking Day in the middle of a pandemic and corresponding infodemic

By Baybars Örsek, IFCN Director

In 2016, during the third Global Fact conference in the Argentine capital Buenos Aires, the world’s fact-checkers decided to name April 2 as the International Fact-Checking Day to raise awareness of the importance of fact-checking, therefore providing the public with accurate information as a service for public good. It is fair to say that back in 2016, today’s state of fact-checking and its place in the public discourse was far from expected, even for the community represented by around 100 participants physically in Buenos Aires for the conference.

In the last couple of years, not only has the global fact-checking community grown, but the horizons of the practice of fact-checking have grown as well. Today, compared to 2016, fact-checkers specialize and provide professional services in a variety of areas to some of the largest technology platforms. Google, Facebook, Line, TikTok, WhatsApp and YouTube are among the platforms that feature fact checks on their various products and services in different capacities, ranging from just-surfacing fact checks to users to working with fact-checkers in commercial capacities to add additional signals to their content moderation practices.

Slightly more than a year ago, the world was shaken with the news of the novel coronavirus spreading around the world followed by the first “infodemic,’ as described by the United Nations. The role of misinformation in the deadly impact of COVID-19 has been noted by observers, academics and practitioners such as fact-checkers, who are dealing with countless baseless claims and conspiracy theories that are making people around the world more vulnerable to the disease. A study published in the American Journal of Tropical Medicine and Hygiene estimated that about 5,800 people were admitted to hospital as a result of false information on social media.

The response to misinformation around COVID-19 has been far from being perfect, however, the acquired consensus on the need to tackle the issue with a multidisciplinary approach has set a new precedent for collaboration between public institutions, technology platforms, fact-checkers and broader industry experts seeking authoritative and reliable information over bad information.

Technology companies have been under stronger scrutiny to address the impact of their business models on the amplification of misinformation to its highest level ever, including the Cambridge Analytica scandal. Critics of big technology point out shortcomings of platforms from an information quality perspective, significantly different from the previous focus on the also very legitimate concerns around privacy and data protection.

International nongovernmental organizations such as the United Nations are teaming up with fact-checkers to provide the most vulnerable people with accurate and digestible information. Politicians all around the world are under stronger scrutiny for their lack of commitment to factual and scientifically backed information on the importance of social distancing, face coverings and vaccinations for winning the battle against this pandemic.

Yes, I can hear you asking, “Are these enough?” It’s absolutely far from being enough. Conspiracy theories still travel faster than reliable information. Vaccine hesitancy still poses a strong risk against community immunity — despite promising but yet isolated evidence of shift on that front — and is being fueled by disinformation circulating in closed groups, messaging apps and social media. Scalability of fact-checking’s impact has become a main theme of concern for fact-checkers across the board and the lack of globally and consistently applied policies to tackle top-to-bottom misinformation in platforms’ content moderation practices often outweighs the important work done on various fronts to reduce misinformation.

Governments around the world are using the misinformation phenomenon as an opportunity to control the flow of information and public discourse at the expense of practices signaling censorship. More and more examples of government-controlled “fact-checking” operations compose a threat to the credibility that nonpartisan and independent fact-checking organizations, from Manilla to Rio de Janeiro, Johannesburg to Oslo, have earned over the years.

Today, we have more reasons to be cautiously optimistic for the future of factual information and informed public discourse than ever before. The understanding that misinformation can cause real-life harm has been established and no credible objection has been raised against that. The acknowledgmen of fact-checking as a public service is clearly represented in the increase of partnerships between fact-checkers and industry stakeholders, which are now at a record high.

Technology around structured data provides new opportunities for fact-checkers to create sustainable business models to keep providing this public interest service in the years and decades ahead. As we transform into a growingly professionalizing cohort of fact-checking organizations, our responsibility to help the community to be stronger and sustainable operations is of prime importance.

As the director of the International Fact-Checking Network, I deeply feel blessed to be a part of this global community, leading the fight against misinformation based on common principles of accountability and transparency. On the fifth International Fact-Checking Day, the need to stick to our values and show solidarity with our own is stronger than ever in the fight to improve the quality public discourse.

Happy International Fact-Checking Day!