Quis custodiet ipsos custodes? Who fact checks the fact checkers? With politicians accused of playing fast and loose with the truth, and with “fake news” websites springing up to exploit political prejudices, many rely on the services of independent “fact checking” sites and organisations.
How long, then, before the term “fake fact checker” enters the political lexicon? If it’s easy to dupe someone into believing a website is a legitimate media organisation, then surely it’s easy to dupe someone into believing a bogus fact checking site is real? Plus, when confronted with a link to a fact checker, surely many people will simply dismiss the organisation as biased or selective in how it present the facts?
Would an international ‘fact checking’ agency be a good solution? It could be an independent federation made up of national fact checking websites and organisations. It could be a voluntary organisation, without any legal or regulatory powers, but with the resources to look at whether there is consistency across a broad range of independent fact checkers when it comes to particularly contentious stories or websites. Would this be a positive step?
To get a response, we spoke to Jodie Ginsberg, Chief Executive of the Index on Censorship, a campaigning organisation which aims to “raise awareness about threats to free expression and the value of free speech as the first step to tackling censorship”. We asked her if she would support the idea of an international fact checking agency or body. What would she say?
I think we shouldn’t rely on a magic bullet system – and certainly not one which involves regulation – to deal with the phenomenon of fake news. We’ve always had propaganda of varying sorts over the years, and trying to find either governmental mechanisms or individual organisations having mechanisms is not the way forward.
I think what we need to be able to do is ensure that users of information have the tools necessary to interrogate whether something is reliable or not. I think we certainly wouldn’t want to rely on a single fact checking organisation. As we’ve seen in the states, a number of fact checking organisations have popped up that, in and of themselves, are partisan. So, it’s not just about whether facts are true or not, it’s the way in which you present them that can also be problematic. For example, even if you have a fact checking organisation, it might choose to only present facts that support its particular side of the case. So, relying simply on one single fact checking organisation as the solution to this problem is also dangerous.
To get another perspective, we also spoke to Renate Schroeder, Director of the European Federation of Journalists in Brussels. What was her opinion?
Well, first of all, there is a lot of discussion around fact checking at the moment, and I think there are some excellent initiatives; for example, what I find good in Norway is that all the media, plus the public service media, have got together to do fact checking. So, it’s also not one media competing against the other ones, which has a positive impact.
For us, it’s very important that journalists are also involved, because previously it was part of the newsroom; fact checking is part, in a way, of the DNA of journalists. But, of course, we know also with the speed of internet and everything that it’s becoming more and more difficult. So, support is welcome.
Yet to have something at the international level reminds me a little bit of what the platforms are doing at the moment; Facebook, for example, they have a lot of fact checking groups [and] it’s not all positive. There has been quite a bit of criticism around that as well. So, again, you have to be very prudent about how these fact checkers are working. Under what conditions are they working? Are they trained? Are they journalists, or are they just some workers in India or Pakistan who are given 4-5 criteria and then they just delete things? So, the quality is tremendously important, but I think also the context. Because fact checking is never white or black, there is a lot of grey zone, there is a lot of connection with cultural aspects, and we don’t think there is such thing as ‘the one and only truth’.
So, fact checking is not so easy, and it’s maybe easier to start in a national context than to start in the international context. But I know that, in Europe, they are discussing [the issue of fake news], and specifically prior to the elections there’s a lot of nervousness, and things have to be done. So, any project is welcome, but – as I said – we think it’s important to do it in cooperation with journalists, and speed shouldn’t matter, and there shouldn’t be any legislation.
What do our readers think? We had a comment sent in from Gábor, who says he would like to see an international rating system of websites, based on how trustworthy they can be considered. Would a voluntary system of certification be a good approach?
How would Jodie Ginsberg from the Index on Censorship respond?
I think this runs into the same problems, which is that the idea that you should have a single body that can identify trustworthiness is problematic. Who decides what is trustworthy? That takes away, I think, some of the agency that’s necessary in the individual reader of news or the consumer of information that’s really important. So, knowing what are the indicators, if you like, that suggests something might be questionable are really important. But relying on an outsourced body to decide that is, I think, problematic.
What about Renate Schroeder from the European Federation of Journalists? What would she say?
It’s not easy to say, because what is an ‘international rating’? You would really have to know a little bit more what the criteria are. There are quite a lot of discussions at the moment, generally speaking but also in terms of journalism, about setting up trust initiatives. It may be a good idea, and you’d have to come up with some very general criteria, like transparency, accountability, self-regulation, we think also working conditions, and all that. But I don’t think it’s very easy, because it’s also a question of what do you want to rate: is it every single article? Or is it the whole website? Is it the owner behind the website?
So, there is a lot of discussion on that. It’s worth exploring. We would propose, for example, to have Source Transparency Indicators, because we think this is really the first thing to start with: transparency. It’s also maybe the least controversial one. From there you could go on, again, with prudence. But why not? We have to develop different strategies, and we are open at the moment to anything, but it has to be really discussed in all its details and by as many stakeholders as possible.
Would an international ‘fact-checking’ agency help stop fake news? Should websites be rated according to how trustworthy they are? Let us know your thoughts and comments in the form below and we’ll take them to policymakers and experts for their reactions!